Virtual reality (VR) offers all sorts of wondrous opportunities when it comes to making learning more accessible for folks with disabilities. What makes it such a game-changer is its ability to fully immerse people in safe, controlled, 360-degree virtual environments. The caveat is that to be effective, those environments need to be designed with accessibility in mind. Check out this video on how VR is being used to change the shape of distance learning.
The advantages of virtual reality for learners with disabilities
By creating environments that simulate a person’s physical presence in worlds real or imagined, VR can help learners with disabilities expand their knowledge, skills, and attitudes in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, enabling them to engage in learning activities relatively free from the limitations imposed by their disability, and in complete safety. VR also helps create empathy about people with disabilities in others by helping them experience disabilities through simulated environments. Here are some of the more obvious advantages.
Overcoming physical limitations
For learners with physical disabilities that limit their movement, VR can offer access to learning experiences that were previously unattainable. By giving them the ability to navigate a virtual world at will, without restraints, VR can help them experience things they could have only ever imagined otherwise: for example, a person using a wheelchair could learn about surfing standing up.
Creating safe spaces
Virtual reality could be used to help learners with communication challenges like autism or Asperger’s to develop and practice social skills in non-threatening environments, including offering access to learning opportunities from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Conversely, it could also be used to help people experience the world from the perspective of those learners.
Providing risk-free experiences
For people learning how to deal with new physical or sensory disabilities, difficult or risky learning experiences can be done safely through VR. First-time wheelchair users, for example, could use VR to learn how to navigate a busy street or shopping center in a virtual environment, safely understanding how to move around and avoid obstacles in that virtual setting before venturing into the real world.
For learners with diverse special needs and learning styles arising from different disabilities, VR can help adapt learning experiences. For example, VR is an effective tool for helping autistic children learn social interaction and nonverbal cues in individualized settings. Virtual environments or input stimuli are controllable to match what is tolerable to the learner.
VR can provide a distraction-free experience for learners with attention deficiency challenges because the virtual reality headset completely covers their frame of view. The immersive environment of a VR experience can promote sustained focus and attention. Further, VR could provide people with ADHD the high levels of stimulation, and immediate, realistic responses to behavior in the virtual world that would make them feel more comfortable and less anxious.
Given all the above advantages, it is heartening to note that VR in learning and training is quickly becoming popular, with new resources being developed.
VR learning resources
The availability of VR apps is increasing dramatically, and with every new piece of software, another avenue is opening up for learners. Here are a few examples.
- Google Expeditions is a VR teaching tool that allows learners to take virtual trips on the surface of Mars, through a museum, or even across Antarctica. There are close to 500 expeditions available and more in development. Research done at the University of Leicester shows that the knowledge and skills acquired by disabled individuals in simulated environments can transfer to the real world.
- Platforms such as Embrace the life VR help wheelchair users learn to successfully navigate in different environments while providing a positive therapeutic effect that decreases anxiety, increases social integration and improves quality of life.
- Titans of Space offers a tour of the solar system, great for some science classes.
It is important that learners with disabilities also take advantage of all these resources, but to be effective, it’s important for virtual experiences to designed with accessibility in mind.
VR has the potential to improve learning, and even the quality of life, of people with disabilities. But, for them to use VR effectively, the hardware and software technologies need to be accessible and compatible with assistive technologies used by some people with disabilities. Current technologies pose some problems:
- Precise tracking and absolute recreation of our body movements make VR difficult for people with physical disabilities.
- Relying mainly on visual cues leaves people with visual impairments behind.
- The high cost of popular VR headsets makes them hard to acquire.
But, there are solutions available, too:
- Spatial audio cues can be used for navigating and interacting with virtual environments. Google’s Daydream labs have some experiments going on here.
- Low-range VR headsets, such as the Google Cardboard, which work with mobile phones, are bringing VR within common reach.
- Walkin VR Driver is a software program that makes VR Games and Apps more accessible for everyone. It makes the following promises:
- Those on a wheelchair can prone, kneel, stand and turn around 360 degrees in VR without having to perform the movement in the real world.
- Those with one arm can play with a virtual controller in the VR space.
- Those who cannot use their hands for movement and button pressing can use a third-party Xbox controller to perform those functions.
- Those who are not able to move their controllers to the height or depth required by the video game can adjust the controllers’ position and range of motion.
- Those who need more operating space can adjust the movement sensitivity of their VR controller that is translated from their physical controller.
- Those who have a limited range of motion in their wrists can change the idle orientation of their controller in VR.
- Google’s Daydream VR controller is being designed with accessibility in mind from the beginning.
Thus, there is increasing potential for accessible VR making great learning experiences for learners with disabilities.
From students to professionals, virtual reality is quickly finding its place in learning, and it could be the tool that levels the playing field when it comes to making learning experiences accessible to people with disabilities. It is imperative that existing and emerging VR technologies be made accessible to a wide range of users. Having people with disabilities to test or, even better, help create the VR experience throughout multiple stages of development would ensure this.
This post is not sponsored. It is for informational purposes only and is not an endorsement of any company or products mentioned herein.
Sam Chandrashekar is D2L’s Global Accessibility Lead. In the five years that Sam has worked with D2L, she has been sharing her passion for accessibility and inclusion with other D2Lers, helping them choose to grow into accessibility subject matter experts in their own domain. D2L’s inclusive company culture makes her job easier. Sam is also passionate about teaching and research. She teaches and supervises graduate research alongside.
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