Monday, October 18, 2010

Disabilities and the Interface Between the Real and the Virtual

I bought the trackball pictured above today after my mouse bit the dust this weekend. I'm not sure what I was thinking exactly, but I had thought that a trackball would work just fine for gaming, including SL and Blue Mars. I was wrong.

Unfortunately, this particular trackball doesn't have the same type of scroll features as a typical mouse. Rotating the trackball moves the cursor around quickly, but there's no roller button to move the camera into tighter or more distant focus, which is a problem if one is trying to build, shop, or do other common activities in a virtual world.

So, bad move on my part, and I'll end up having to buy a gaming mouse for virtual world activities after all. But, this whole thing started me thinking about the accessibility of virtual worlds more generally. It raises a more significant point about the interface between real and virtual worlds for those with physical disabilities.

My minor frustrations with a trackball interface pale in comparison to the issues those with visual, aural, or mobility issues in the real world face as they attempt to interact in the virtual realm.

Some might argue that there are devices, software, or other technological approaches that can assist those who are disabled interact in the virtual world. But, as Peter Abrahams noted in his white paper about accessibility issues in interactive online environments, "assistive technologies are rarely a complete solution" for those dealing with physical limitations.

This is certainly true of Second Life, which is not fully accessible to those with visual impairments, or those with significant mobility issues.

According to an article in the Second Life Wiki, assistive technologies, such as Dragon Speak, that rely on voice recognition technology to facilitate computer interaction by those with limitations of physical movement, don't work well in Second Life at all. Other technologies, such as gaze interaction, haven't been found to work well either.

Given all this, I was curious as to whether the Americans with Disabilities Act might apply to virtual worlds, and if so, whether the availability of assistive technologies could be required under the ADA. Joshua Newton recently completed an excellent review of the ADA's applicability to virtual worlds and found that not all courts even agree on some very fundamental issues about the virtual realm.

First, as to whether a virtual world is a "place" or not is an open question. Some courts have held that "places of public accommodation [do] not need to be brick and mortar buildings." Other courts have held the opposite, that physical structures are indeed required in order for the ADA to apply. Depending on what part of the country you live in then (and which court jurisdiction would thus apply) requirements for access accommodations to virtual worlds may or may not be required.

So, even though virtual worlds may potentially offer people with disabilities a place where they can run, dance, and otherwise interact in ways they can't in the real world, that actually depends on the disability and the availability of technologies that can overcome the limitations of virtual world viewers. The legal system doesn't seem able or willing to wade in effectively at this point either.

All of which makes my earlier ramblings about trackballs less than trivial.


Newton, J. (2010). Virtually enabled: How Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act might be applied to online virtual worlds. Federal Communications Law Journal, 62, p. 183-204.

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