Accessibility and Online Communities

This article was originally posted on Yahoo! Accessibility.

Online Communities

What are social networks? Most people are familiar with websites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, but there are many others. These are places where communities are created by sharing photos, links, videos, and text-based status updates.

Although social networking sites have constant updates, there are still fundamentally a static experience. People who look for real-time interaction often explore virtual worlds. These are animated three-dimensional environments created with Computer-generated Imagery (CGI) and other rendering software. Users interact with the world and other users through their avatars, graphical representations of themselves that they can create and modify. Virtual worlds can be accessed through a web browser, or more commonly, a program is downloaded to the user’s computer that allows access.

Virtual Worlds

You may be familiar with World of Warcraft, which is a popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG); virtual world where users play a game together. There is a growing list of virtual worlds out there. Second Life is currently the largest virtual world that is not specifically a role-playing game. It is a varied virtual community, in which real-world companies (like IBM) and even universities (like Harvard) participate.

Universal Design

Universal Design extends the notion of accessibility to include design that is useful to people with and without disabilities. It was introduced by a team whose leader, Ron Mace, is a disabled architect. While the ideal physical world is accessible to everyone; universal design also applies to the Internet and online communities.

“Universal design seeks to encourage attractive, marketable products that are more usable by everyone. It is design for the built environment and consumer products for a very broad definition of user.”

– Ron Mace

Virtual worlds, i.e. Second Life, have made specific efforts to improve accessibility for people with certain kinds of disabilities. For example, users with low vision can use a “guide dog” to identify nearby avatars and objects, screen readers read text chat aloud, or screen magnifiers make the text large enough to read.

Second life virtual guide dog

People with mobility issues can find it difficult to navigate through a virtual world using only a mouse. More recent versions of virtual world software have incorporated alternate navigation controls, such as the ability to use keyboard commands. Environments are also becoming more compatible with voice recognition software, which is used by many people who have difficulty typing.

On a broader scale, people with disabilities in virtual worlds have used virtual worlds to show what accessibility should look like in real life communities. For example, installing wheelchair ramps in Second Life is an important first step to providing a welcoming environment for wheelchair using avatars, and to build awareness around the need for physical accessibility of buildings in real life.

Our friends over at Virtual Helping Hands coordinate  Helen Keller Day, a popular annual event  dedicated to “exploring how and why to employ, educate, entertain, and engage everyone through virtual worlds.” It  brings together people with disabilities, businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations to discuss access as it relates to Second Life. There is much good work being done to address these concerns, but more work is needed to create truly accessible spaces.

Creating Access

The use of Universal Design to make virtual worlds more accessible to people with disabilities can also help other people. This is especially true for those with communication problems caused by language barriers, older computers, and even slow typing skills. Universal Design also helps people who are unable to process a fast-moving visual environment; such as those with seizure disorders, chronic headaches, or other visual processing issues.

This is where social networking communities and virtual worlds can come together. Integrating social media into virtual worlds and building strong cross-platform communities that distribute information is essential. While not every site or community will be accessible to everyone, good community leaders have to meet their audience on different platforms and be flexible; providing options for people to participate in their communities. People learn to use technology in ways which they can understand and comfortable with.

Even in a graphic-heavy virtual world like Second Life, some groups have found ways to include people who can’t or choose not to enter the environment. For example, some groups make use of an IRC relay during meetings, which transmits text chat from Second Life into an accessible text-based chat room.

Who Benefits?

Why is access to online communities so important? There is a huge population of people seeking personal support to overcome roadblocks in their life. They may not have access to these support resources offline.

The GimpGirl Community often sees women with disabilities, fresh out of a rehab hospital after a spinal cord injury, looking to connect with others to explore this whole new world of having a disability; an experience that causes most people to completely rework their personal identities.

Sometimes these women share the cause of their injury and sometimes they don’t, depending on what they are comfortable with. One young woman eventually trusted us enough to disclose that she  was injured because her boyfriend lost control of the car while trying to beat her. Sadly, this  didn’t surprise us, as “[p]hysical assault by someone known to the victim is a leading cause of injury to women. Nearly two million women are assaulted each year in the United States, and more than half of women will be physically assaulted during their lifetime. …” according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Her family had abandoned her after choosing to stay with her boyfriend, even though she had been trying to leave him since the accident. Her relationship with this violent young man literally left her with no support through this major upheaval in her life. Many women’s shelters are not accessible, though this is slowly changing. The relatively anonymity of online communities allowed her to share her experience with others who knew what she was going through; people who had not been burned by her personal decisions. It helped her gain strength and develop strategies for the long battle she faced.

Her story, unfortunately, is an all too common one. Many women come to us facing abuse, food insecurity, and homelessness. They need emotional support and commonality, along with help researching what community services are available to help them.

Others who benefit are students in learning environments, and people seeking information or support. This makes universal design of access to information and community good for everyone, not just people with disabilities.

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About Jennifer Cole

Jennifer Cole (SL: JennyLin Arashi) is a founding member and Director of the GimpGirl Community. Jennifer is also a research associate in the Experiential Design and Gaming Environments (EDGE) Lab at Ryerson University. She has worked with Oregon Public Health to create state policy recommendations around women with disabilities and sexual health. Jennifer currently resides in Washington State. She is an invited speaker and author on topics such as disability, social media, technology and sexuality.