I tried to get a disabled avatar on my brief excursion into Second Life last year, but failed. I did find a wheelchair after extensive searching, but couldn’t sit in it – in fact, I couldn’t even get it out of the box. Second Life was inaccessible to anyone with a (virtual) physical or visual disability.
Why be disabled in a virtual world?
Why would anyone want to be disabled? Surely disabled people want to experience not being disabled?
That’s the general consensus. For instance, Virtual Ability was founded to help people with disabilities virtually climb mountains, go fishing, skydive… At the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, doctors are using Second Life to allow “women with disabilities to experience virtual life as an able bodied person.”
For some individuals, however, particularly those born with a disability, their disability is a big part of their identity. After extensive searching, I did find a small niche of disabled Second Life users, clustered in a (virtually) wheelchair-accessible nightclub called Wheelies. According to a disabled blogger named Ruth who described her experience on Second Life, “Simon” from the Wheelies group explained:
The avatar is a powerful device in ensuring an inner self-identity…So for some disabled people, Second Life is an opportunity to escape from their impairment. …There is, however, a group of disabled people, including myself, who wish to appear disabled within Second Life.
Why are Second Life avatars so young and attractive?
The fact that it is so difficult to display your disability in Second Life provides an interesting perspective on the social construction of identities. Is there no place for people with disabilities in the ideal society?
The same goes for obese, elderly, bald, unattractive people… Look around on Second Life. The avatars are all skinny, sharp dressers who are fully able bodied and ever young.
Second Life may be a form of escapism from the drudgery of Real Life – or, as the official website has it, a “richly rewarding experience, filled with creativity, self expression and fun.” But it has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing our existing prejudices about who is, and is not, welcome in society.
The role of virtual worlds such as Second Life in the creation of online (and offline) identities will play an increasingly important role as these virtual environments get more and more sophisticated.
You can already play Second Life, for instance, with “alternate accounts,” i.e. more than one avatar. An interesting way to explore different aspects of your identity without frightening friends and colleagues in Real Life with your split personality.