The following is a guest post by Sienna Fisher about how virtual reality technology can help disabled people

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.” This is the opening line of the book “The Less Travelled Road” by Scott Peck. When I first read this back in my senior year in high school, I felt a great relief in my heart. Sometimes we forget that everyone else is having their own battle.

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

When I was a little 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 would be unable to stand up and walk independently. I’ve gone from one doctor to the other in my life, and I know a lot about this disease, but this is not the point here; therefore, I won’t go into detail.  I had a relatively happy childhood, and I owe a lot to my dear parents for this. But as I grew older, I felt different from the rest and that caused depression. At the end of high school, I had a significant mental downgrade to the point I was assigned for a six-month-long anti-depression therapy course.

In 2016 quite occasionally I came across a fancy Virtual Reality video. I was impressed. The technology was officially introduced a few years ago (in 2010 I think), but this was the first time I saw 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 application in helping disabled people like me. I knew that if I helped myself, it would do a world of good to my mental health, the quality of my life, and I could give a hand to other disabled people facing the same struggles. Then I finally decided to attend a sort of pre-university course in this field to gain a little professional expertise and be able to help afterwards.

My goal is to provide other disabled people with relevant information to help them live to a great extent, a barrier-free professional and personal life. I want to encourage them to learn about Virtual Reality technology and discover ways how it can help them.

How Can Virtual Reality Help Disabled Students?

Equality is something education must stand for. Our schools have made significant progress in this aspect. Anyway, there’s more to be done. Disabled students still face a lot of different problems apart from a customized infrastructure or similar. I know this from my own experience in school.

So the question is: Can Virtual Reality Technology play a role in tackling this problem? YES, it CAN.

On a major scale, Virtual Reality can provide disabled students with:

·         Customization

·         Inclusion

·         Participation

These are three branches of the same tree, so to say, they complement each other in this structure.

Customization

Disabled students may have specific needs due to their physical impairments. Let’s say a student has a partial eyesight loss. In a regular class setting, a clear vision is essential for the student to understand the material. There are VR goggles and additional gear that enables these students to see clearly. This brings us then to the second point.

Participation

When the student knows what is being discussed in the class, they can engage all their senses in the learning process; therefore, they can participate in discussions.  This is an essential element for everyone to excel in school.

Inclusion

It is of great importance for a disabled student to feel part of the learning process. When their needs are met, and they can participate equally, this is easily achieved.

Many classes, especially those held in laboratories, require specific body movements to perform an experiment. I had 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 or move in a way which I couldn’t. So I was only learning about it from what I saw other students were doing. I knew what was going on, but I didn’t feel part of it. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement which is a massive turn off for disabled students in career decisions.

VR Technology For Students With Sight Impairments

Globally the number of people suffering from any sort of sight impairment is growing at a worrying pace. According to the WHO, more than 250 million people worldwide have sight problems. Innovations in VR technology are being used to help many of them, including those who follow their education dreams.

For example, a London-based startup company developed a few years ago used a VR headset to help visually impaired people restore their sight almost to normal levels. Essentially what their brilliant innovative device does is that it takes a high-quality real-time image of reality. Then it projects its augmented form to the part of your retina that is still working.  SightPlus is designed in that way so you can adjust it to the level of sight improvement you need through a remote control system.

Even the big company Samsung has built a new VR headset for people with sight issues. Their product is called Relumino. This is based on the same principles to assist people with sight impairments by making blurry images clearer and adjusting the contrast of colours accordingly.

VR Technology For People Using a Wheelchair

Mobility is the main problem for wheelchair users. I personally have used a wheelchair my whole life, so I learned navigation early in life. But some people start using a wheelchair from a later age because they had an accident or their initial neurovascular or orthopaedic disease progressed in time. They find it extremely difficult to move around, and I can understand that. Even worse, in most cases, they have to deal with this problem all alone without any help coming through.

VR technology is already helping these people by simulating a virtual situation where they have to cross a road or navigate in the building of a school. In such a way, the person can learn to move as freely as possible and, more importantly, INDEPENDENTLY.

VR simulations also help people undergoing therapies to walk again. Doctors nowadays don’t ask their patients to push themselves physically, but instead, they simulate a walking experience with the help of a VR headset. VR experts claim that this has a strong base in medicine, more specifically neuroscience. They say that a simulated walking experience can trigger a patient’s brain to adapt faster to new motoric skills.

Further on, VR technology can help wheelchair users experience something they couldn’t experience otherwise. There are already many VR sets created to simulate a tennis game, go hiking, tour around cities and museums, and so on. And to all these activities, wheelchair users can also have access to thanks to Virtual Reality technology.

Entertainment and VR

Disabled people deal with a lot of mental stress. It’s important for them to be entertained and feel no barrier to engaging in exciting activities. Here’s where VR technology comes into play.

I, for example, always loved to hike but I couldn’t because of my wheelchair. In a London workshop, I tried a VR set that simulated walking on stones at the top of the mountain. It felt so real, and I was happy I could experience hiking.

VR is also a perfect opportunity to have fun for people who aren’t disabled. For example, Google offers an excellent immersive app called Google Expeditions. As you can guess, it can take users on a dreamlike expedition, for instance, on Mars.

VR Accessibility for Disabled Students

VR technology is nothing new, but it is still not the norm, so to say. The main problem related to it is undoubtedly its cost. Although they’ve been around for quite a while their price tag is high and for many just another luxurious item they cannot afford. For example, a Virtual reality headset may have a price of up to 1,400 euros which is too much for most of us.

There are many free-to-use VR apps and software, but they’re bonded to a narrow spectrum of disability-related needs. For example, visually impaired people may use Chromecast to project something on a TV display. This way, they can read and see clearly from a certain distance instead of holding a device inches apart from the eye.  

Anyway, the day when VR will be accessible for almost everyone is not too far. Until then, what can disabled people do?

First and foremost, I encourage them to speak up for their specific needs. In school, I didn’t feel comfortable asking staff to adjust something in the regular class setting as I wanted to avoid attracting attention and feeling anxious afterwards.  That was wrong, and I don’t want others to make the same mistake.

Reach out to VR agencies: When I first got to know what potential this technology had to change my life, I looked for technology groups in my area with VR gear. In this way, I had the opportunity to experience VR from close to home and feel how it could affect the quality of my life. Eventually, I decided to seek a career path in this area, but I don’t necessarily suggest others like me do the same. I want you to take advantage of this technology and use it to benefit whatever direction you take in life.

Future Prospects

Nobody knows for sure what this technology is going to provide us with in the future. However, there are strong reasons to be excited about it. Big role players in this industry seem to be firmly determined to widen this technology’s application, especially in medicine. In years to come, we may see doctors who prescribe VR headsets, and this is just unbelievable to think about it. The idea of placing yourself in a future simulation that feels profoundly immersive has massive potential. It can reveal a lot about our reaction mechanisms and then help us prepare better.

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