Virtual Ability Today

Virtual Ability has been a community in Second Life for over ten years, offering a supportive environment as people with various disabilities enter and learn to thrive in the online world. Virtual Ability is more than just a “virtual place.” It is a true community, where individuals who physically live across the globe come together for conversation, learning, social activities, expeditions, and fun. Some take courses; others teach. Some mentor, others are mentored. Members create or build virtual architecture, write books or poetry, perform in plays, DJ, dance, play games, raise virtual gardens and virtual animals, or experience adventures of every type… all in a virtual world, from the comfort of their own computer. Community members bring extremely diverse backgrounds and experiences to the group and many are also active in other virtual world groups.

Virtual Ability began in 2007 when a group of online friends with disabilities started discussing the importance of community for those who faced barriers to participation in the physical locale in which they lived. A lively discussion centered on what “community” means and what they expected from being a member of a community.

The friends realized that people with disabilities want the same things everyone else does. They want companionship and friendship, especially with people who understand the limitations placed on them by their disabling conditions. They need to learn more about their own conditions, about health and wellbeing, and about resources available to make their lives better. They want a chance to be employed or to do volunteer work since both give back to our community. And, they want to have fun.

This was really no surprise, nor was it a surprise that these things were difficult to achieve in the world outside their homes. People who are disabled are often socially isolated, even physically isolated, within their geographic communities.

Virtual worlds were rather new in 2007 at that time, and they got a lot of publicity. But most people viewed them as a form of online game. The three friends visited a half dozen different virtual worlds to find a setting within which to build a supportive community. They chose Second Life since it seemed to have the richest cultural environment and be the most fully developed.

Virtual Ability’s founders never thought of themselves as players in a game. They were always focused on creating a support community for people with disabilities.

They did not set up the new community immediately, since they knew that they had to find out what already existed in terms of support. They needed to learn how Second Life worked for its residents. And they did not want to duplicate things that already existed.

In their initial explorations of Second Life, the founders met a librarian who allowed them to use a plot of virtual land, and the community began. Initially named The Heron Sanctuary after the SL last name of the three founders, the group helped over 100 people with disabilities come into the virtual world in the first eight months. The community developed a reputation within SL as the leading organization dealing with the support of people with real world disabilities. The community had two core operating concepts: that people with disabilities could come into virtual worlds like Second Life and function normally there, and that there are tremendous benefits to them in doing so.

The community leadership embarked on a structured growth strategy. It was realized that many people mistook the name “The Heron Sanctuary” for an organization that provided a safe place for large, blue-feathered wading birds. Accordingly, after discussions with its existing membership, the community selected a new name—Virtual Ability, Inc.—in January 2008.

In 2008, Virtual Ability, Inc. received US 501(c)3 nonprofit status from the IRS. As far as we know, Virtual Ability is the first virtual world project that evolved into a physical work nonprofit corporation, after starting out as Second Life group.

Becoming a legally recognized entity allowed Virtual Ability to collaborate with Lori Bell and the Alliance Library System on a grant from the National Library of Medicine. The purpose of this grant was to create a way for people with disabilities and chronic health conditions, especially those using assistive technology, to learn how to use Second Life.

Eme Capalini, Vice President for Development of Virtual Ability, led a design/build team that used the principles of andragogy and the theory of Universal Design along with extensive user testing to create the New Resident Orientation Center on Virtual Ability Island. One of the influential members of that team was Karen Gans (SL: The Sojourner), whose contributions are honored in the name of Sojourner Auditorium. The Opening Ceremony for Virtual Ability Island was held on August 16, 2008.

In 2009, Virtual Ability took over two additional Second Life properties, Healthinfo Island and Cape Able.

Healthinfo Island, previously owned by the Alliance Library System, held a collection of health related information. Virtual Ability maintains that property on which numerous health- and wellness-related resources are offered to the general public. People with disabilities are as interested in maintaining health and wellness as are able-bodied persons.

Cape Able was a residential island mainly for persons who were Deaf or hard of hearing. With its integration into the Virtual Ability community, Cape Able also integrated the non-hearing and hearing populations of persons with disabilities. As an example of that integration, Virtual Ability provided live text transcription of the Metanomics television show, aired in Second Life, so that deaf persons in the studio audience could participate in the interaction in real time.

Also in 2009, Virtual Ability, Inc., in partnership with Remedy Communication, began a long-term research project funded by the United States Army Advanced Medical Technology Initiative. This project is called AVESS, which originally stood for Amputee Virtual Environment Support System. The purpose of the research was to provide a venue for education and peer support for military amputees.

Virtual Ability believes in earning its funding, and in training and employing persons with disabilities. In 2009, VAI was asked by the Canadian government to evaluate the accessibility of its Second Life employment recruitment island. Several VAI members with different kinds of disabilities submitted a report that helped make the island more accessible to Canadian job seekers who used assistive technology.

Linden Lab, developer and owner of Second Life, recognized Virtual Ability’s value twice in 2009. First, Virtual Ability was named the co-winner of the first Linden Prize. This $10,000 prize was established by Linden Lab, “to honor Second Life projects that have a tangible impact on the real world.” Virtual Ability was one of two co-winners out of 230 applicants.

Also in 2009, Virtual Ability was invited to be one of a handful of SL groups to serve as a Community Gateway, an entrance into Second Life for newcomers. Each Community Gateway was designated to serve a particular population of those new to the virtual world.

Virtual Ability’s virtual world community continues to grow. Our SL population now tops 1,000 individuals, from six continents. Of course not everyone can be online at any particular time, so we offer our activities in varied time slots to be sure that there is something available for everyone.

We added a second residential island in Second Life, called Cape Serenity, in 2012, and a third residential island, Cape Heron, in 2015. Each residential island has a unique character. Cape Able has a public art gallery. Cape Serenity has a public library. And Cape Heron has a rockin’ tavern. In 2011, we created Independence Island as a place for research done in Second Life and for CILs (Centers for Independent Living) to offer some services to their clients. This means the Virtual Ability community has an extensive base in the virtual world Second Life. But there are other virtual worlds as well.

In 2010, Virtual Ability expanded to a second virtual world, InWorldz, where we maintain an island named Beacon Bay. Our land in InWorldz is used as a gathering place for Virtual Ability members and is residential as well. Many VAI members retain the same avatar name in all virtual worlds, where possible. In 2013, we set up a pair of islands in Open Sim for research use.

The number and variety of community events increases each year. We now average two activities each day, with some days having more. Certain activities are weekly (e.g., games time, exercise class, Show and Tell), biweekly (e.g., classes about SL, mystery field trips) or monthly (e.g., Eat More Lentils, Online Safety, Do 1 Thing for Emergency Preparedness).

Other activities are one-off field trips to explore fun places around the virtual worlds such as art galleries, historic sites, and places of natural beauty. Virtual Ability members like to stay busy. We invite guests to share their specialized knowledge with our members. View images from our community events on our Flickr page.

These events help us develop a cohesive sense of community through shared activities. But more than that, our pubic events show the non-disabled population that our abilities are more important than our disabilities. Plus… these events are just plain fun!

Virtual Ability, both the inworld community and the nonprofit corporation, receive ongoing recognition in a number of ways.

Linden Lab continued to recognize the value of input from our community members by asking VAI to provide feedback on several of their initiatives. We may not all be techies, but we do know how to evaluate how well alpha and beta projects will work with the assistive tech that many of us use.

Virtual Ability was invited to participate in the Resident Help Network. This Linden Lab project was similar to the older Community Gateway project, in that selected communities assisted in bringing newcomers into Second Life and orienting them to existing communities. Our community specializes in assisting residents who have disabilities or chronic health conditions.

Virtual Ability’s orientation path is widely recognized by educators for its superior design and as a safe place for their students to enter Second Life. Some assign students to create an account before class begins. Others bring their students into SL as a group for the first class meeting, in which case Virtual Ability Mentors can greet the students in world and aid their initial learning. Anyone can request this type of assistance by emailing us at “info at virtualability dot org”.

Virtual Ability has consistently earned its way through project work. In 2010, Virtual Ability was selected in a competitive bid process to evaluate online course materials for the Community College Open Textbook project. This project offered an opportunity for VAI to train and employ persons with various disabilities in a structured evaluation process.

Virtual Ability continues to work with the AVESS project, funded by the United States Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. This project is creating a proof of concept for use in diagnosing and treating individuals with traumatic brain injury.

Virtual Ability is recognized as a highly capable research partner, leading to invitations to collaborate with a variety of institutions and funders in recent research projects.  The Virtual Health Adventures research project examines the use of avatars in helping amputees learn to use their prostheses. It is amazing to watch a video explaining how to transfer from a wheelchair to a car, and then see your avatar do the same thing. A research project with the University of Arkansas saw elders come into the virtual world, learn to operate their avatar, and participate in social activities.

The Mrs. A and Mr. B project with the University of Pennsylvania Medical School (funded by PCORI) uses focus groups in the virtual world to examine disparities in healthcare for persons with disabilities. VAI used this project to train and employ persons with disabilities in many aspects of the project work, including as focus group facilitators and data de-identifiers.

See more details about these major projects here.

The Virtual Ability community in Second Life is part of a larger ecosystem of peer support and nonprofit service provision in the virtual world. From our earliest history, we have communicated and coordinated with existing virtual and physical world entities.

Virtual Ability took on the project of identifying existing peer support groups in Second Life, and found over 120 of them. In order to make this information available to the residents of SL, VAI created the Path of Support. The heads of these support organizations can share information of general interest to other organizations through the Health Support Coalition group. We actively work to connect individuals and groups who share interests.

Virtual Ability representatives are part of the NonProfit Commons group in Second Life. They offer advice and support to other nonprofits which are entering or functioning in the virtual world. VAI has coached several SL groups in their journey seeking Real Life nonprofit status.

Our members’ activity inworld is not restricted to disability causes. Our community members are active in a wide range of SL activities, from the SL Birthday celebrations to Burning Man, from Relay for Life to the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference. Speakers and panel members from Virtual Ability are in demand throughout Second Life.

Because of our extensive knowledge of SL and RL resources for persons with disabilities, Virtual Ability is the go-to organization providing services and information for and about people with disabilities in online virtual worlds