Going Virtual.

Black and blue globe over a backdrop of glitching internet symbols.

Audio:

By Sienna Fisher, a British disabled woman living with muscular dystrophy, & taking a special interest in Virtual Reality technology.

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths,” is the opening line of the book “The Less Travelled Road” by Scott Peck. When I first read it in my senior year of high school it resonated with me. Sometimes we forget that everyone else is fighting their own battles too.

At that point in my life it was essential for me to embrace and remember this truth. A few months from that day my high school friends would each find their professional and personal way in life. I, on the other hand, was on the brink of depression because I assumed my disability-related barriers were impossible to overcome.

When I was a baby, my parents were told that I won’t be able to walk on my own. I was born with a type of muscular dystrophy which meant I wouldn’t be able to stand up or walk around independently. My entire life I’ve gone from one doctor to another and I now know a lot about this disease, but I digress. I still had a relatively happy childhood and for this I owe a lot to my dear parents. But, as I grew older, I felt different from my peers and that caused depression. At the end of high school, I had a big mental breakdown to the point where I was assigned a six-month long course of anti-depression therapy.

In 2016, quite accidentally, I came across this fancy Virtual Reality video. I was impressed. The technology was officially introduced a few years ago (in 2010 I think), but for me it was the first time I had seen it. This first, strong impression led me to a few weeks of persistent online research about this technology. My interest in it intensified, especially when I read about its potential applications in helping disabled people like me. I knew that if I could use this technology to help myself, it would do a world of good to my mental health & quality of life, & then I could help other disabled people facing the same struggles. Eventually I decided to attend a sort of pre-university course in the field to gain a little professional experience.

My goal is to provide other disabled people with relevant information which would help them remove barriers in their personal and professional life. I want to encourage people to learn about Virtual Reality technology and discover how it can help them.

Education.

Equality in education is essential. Our schools have already made great progress in this aspect, but there is still more to be done. Disabled students still face a lot of different problems; I know this from my very own experiences in school.

So, the question is: Can Virtual Reality Technology play a role in tackling inequality in education?

Yes, it can.

On a major scale Virtual Reality can provide disabled students with customization, inclusion, & participation, all of which complement each other. Customisation helps disabled students who have specific needs. Let’s say a student has partial eyesight loss and in a normal class clear vision is helpful for them to understand the material. There are VR goggles that help these students to see clearly. Once they have the tools that meet their specific needs, they can then participate more easily.

When students know what is being talked about in the class they can focus all of their attention on the learning process & content. This is an essential element of the learning process that enables everyone to excel in school. It is of a great importance for disabled students to feel part of the learning process, thus feeling included.

In many classes, especially those held in laboratories, physical bodily movement is needed for an experiment to be performed. I encountered this problem as a high school student. I was never able to conduct an experiment on my own because sometimes I was supposed to be standing on my own feet, or moving in a certain way which I couldn’t. So, I was only learning the science from what I saw other students doing. I knew what was going on but I didn’t feel included. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement in the laboratories, which is a massive turn-off for disabled students making important career decisions.

Healthcare.

Additional applications of Virtual Reality can be found in healthcare, & includes distraction during painful or invasive procedures to reduce stress in patients, especially children, & training without risking harm to patients.

Entertainment.

Disabled people deal with a lot of mental stress. It’s important for us to have entertainment and not have to deal with the stress of barriers preventing them from engaging in exciting activities, especially when they are activities we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

Virtual Reality & Visual Impairment.

Globally, the number of people living with any sort of visual impairment is growing rapidly. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are more than 1 billion people around the world with sight problems. Innovation in VR technology are being used to help many of those effected.

For example, a London-based startup company developed a VR headset a few years ago, that helps people with visual impairments restore their sight almost to normal levels. Essentially, their brilliantly innovative device takes a real-time high-quality image of actual reality, & it projects its augmented form to the parts of your retina that still function. SightPlus is designed in a way that allows you to customise it to your specific needs through a remote-control system.

Even tech giant Samsung has built a new VR headset for people with sight issues. Their product is called Relumino. This too, is based on the same principles to assist people with sight impairments by making blurry images clearer, this time by adjusting the contrast of colours.

Virtual Reality & Wheelchair Users.

Mobility is the main problem that results in barriers for wheelchair users. I have used a wheelchair my whole life, meaning I learned about navigating around in a wheelchair earlier than most. There are people who start using a wheelchair from a later age because they had an accident, illness, or a disease they already had has progressed. They find it extremely difficult to learn how move around.

A way VR technology is already helping wheelchair users is by simulating a virtual situation where they have to cross a road or navigate a building. In such ways, the person can learn to move as freely as possible in a safe environment, and importantly, be independent.

VR simulations also help people undergoing therapies to walk again. Nowadays, a doctor doesn’t need to ask their patients to push themselves as hard physically, because they can simulate a walking experience with a help of a VR headset. Scientists say that a simulated walking experience can trigger patient’s brains to adapt faster to their newly learned motor skills.

The Future of VR.

VR technology is nothing new, but it is still not the norm. The main problem is cost. Although it’s been around for quite a while, the price tag is high and for many is just another luxurious item they cannot afford. However, the day when VR will be accessible for almost all of us is not too far away.

In the meantime, I encourage disabled people to speak up about their specific needs. In school I wasn’t comfortable asking to adjust something in the regular class setting, because I wanted to avoid attracting attention & feeling anxious afterwards.  I don’t want others to make the same mistake.

Research current VR projects; knowing the potential of this technology has changed my life for the better. I had the opportunity to experience VR & eventually I decided to seek a career path in this field. I don’t necessarily suggest others do the same as me. I just want you to take advantage of this technology and use it for your benefit in every walk you take in this life. Who knows what the future prospects are for this technology?

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