UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Is Second Life Accessible?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 14 Jan 2008

Is Second Life accessible to users with disabilities?  If your views on accessibility are based on compliance with guidelines (especially WAI’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and you feel that all digital resources must be universally accessible to everyone, you may feel that an inherently graphical and interactive  environment such as Second Life is unlikely to be accessible.

Use of Second Life by user with disabilitiesIf you share such views I would strongly recommend that you watch the Wheeling in Second Life video clip which is available on YouTube (or, if you cannot access YouTube on the Tips or DotSub services).

This video clip shows a user with cerebral palsy, Judith, using Second Life with a headwand. As Judith explains (which you can read on the transcript):

I’ve got a wheelchair in Second Life also. You can choose whether you want to be in a chair or not. You can have crutches, you can have whatever disability you have in real life in Second Life“.

In response to the question “Do you think that this will be a really useful tool for people who are unable to get around, who have problems of mobility in real life?” Judith feels that “Yes, because you can have friends without having to go out and physically find them“.

Should institutions really be developing policies which prevent use of services such as Second Life on grounds of inaccessibility?  And who will explain the reasons for such decisions to users such as Judith?

11 Responses to “Is Second Life Accessible?”

  1. Peter Miller said

    You’re right to say that use of SL can be liberating for some. Moreover, open sourcing the SL client has made it possible to develop more accessible versions (there’s an NSF-funded project underway). The BBC radio program In Touch recently covered sonic guidance systems for the blind in SL (developed by some interns at IBM) and there’s an EEG-based navigation system being developed in Japan. Ultimately designing sims for use by newbies should factor in simple navigation to help everybody.

    We shouldn’t ignore either difficulties that might be encountered by dyslexics in an environment more oriented towards “real time” than the conventional web or, indeed, the colour-blind if colour-coding is used in builds to aid semantics.

    Simulator sickness might require particular building or use strategies or, in extreme cases, developing a parallel non-SL experience. The latter might not capture the full interactivity of the environment but snapshots and machinima are easy enough to do and comms are reasonably straightforward. A “flattened” version would also be more accessible off-site to students without heavy duty graphics and a strategy for maintaining some of the SL experience out-of-world may also reduce the chances of vendor lock-in.

  2. Peter Miller said

    For completeness, I should have mentioned the third-party Ajax clients AjaxLife and MovableLife that might ultimately support limited participation in group- and comms-based activities without actually requiring the full client.

  3. James Clay said

    “you feel that all digital resources must be universally accessible to everyone”

    Do people still think like that?

    A podcast is perfectly accessible to a visually impaired learner and completely pointless for a hearing impaired learner.

    Accessibility only exists at the point of delivery.

    For some users SL will be completely inaccessible, not because of disability, but because I don’t get it! For other users such as Judith, it is a liberating experience.

    Excellent blog post.


  4. Sadly, James, I think in some organisations people do think like this. I heard a story a few years ago of a University Computing Service department which removed loudspeakers from PCs in a cluster as they would disenfranchise deaf students :-(

    I’m currently working on a paper which argues against this view that services must be accessible to all or they shouldn’t be deployed. I’d welcome examples of why this is an inappropriate response, and the approaches organisations should be taking.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. […] Well worth a read. […]

  6. James Clay said


    I recall in a forum once, someone thought we should not allow recorded lectures to be available as podcasts because this would be unfair to deaf students.

    So the spoken lecture is fine, but the podcast is not….


    I think part of the problem is that people think in black and white terms, either/or and forget that we can have both or grey areas.

    I was showing some staff an UMPC this afternoon, the Q1 Ultra, which I am thinking of using in our library, and first comment was that the 7″ screen would be too small for some students.

    This is a fair comment, but I am not going to replace all the computers in the library with UMPCs, there would still be big computers with big screens for those that wanted them. The UMPCs would be in addition not a replacement. Some users will be fine with the UMPC, others will want what they see as a “normal” computer.

    I would say it is similar with web services, just because a service is not accessible to everyone, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be used, but consideration needs to be given how you would support the users for whom it *may* be inaccessible.

    In my lecture/podcast example, I would say that if a signer was provided for the lecture, then a signer could be provided for the podcast.

    If “services must be accessible to all or they shouldn’t be deployed” then non-web services should be subject to the same constraints, in which case nothing would happen in an educational institution!

    It’s not black and white, it’s grey.


  7. Neil Witt said

    Perhaps we may have done too good a job introducing the idea of accessibility into institutions. The easiest solution is to quote WCAG or threaten the DDA (have you heard the one about it being against the law not to put all lecture material on the Portal before lectures take place……), we end up with the lowest common denominator…..which like it or not is still WCAG 1.0.

    There’s a raft of easily installed ‘compliance’ tools out there that produce nice reports that might or might not be used as a legal defence and numerous accessibility experts willing to perpeptuate the rumour that WCAG1.0 = accessibility = you won’t get sued.

  8. […] visually impaired users may find it difficult or impossible to use. Brian alludes to the idea that institutions may be developing policies that would prevent use of digital resources, like Second Lif…. Just Because Some People Can’t Use Something Doesn’t Mean No-one Should Use […]

  9. One problem is the way in which the blanket term “disabilities” is used to cover people who are challenged in some very different ways, as already mentioned, and I have heard e.g. people who are deaf be irritated by this lumping in e.g. with people who are visually impaired and who have different problems (SL was obviously particularly hospitable to the deaf community before Voice came along).

    As regards lectures vs podcasts, induction loops can be put into lecture rooms and also people may be able to lip read, advantages over the podcast. However, this still isn’t a reason for not having the podcast, I think, though it might be something to give pause for thought if you were thinking of using the podcast *instead* of a lecture rather than *as well as* it.

  10. Thanks for the post and for giving me the link. I guess I’m a believer in trying to make things as accessible as possible from the outset, with podcasts should we not try to have transcripts, with videos should we not add subtitles – not only for those who are D/deaf and Visually Impaired, as a large number of people coming to UK Universities (where I currently work) are international students and English isn’t often their first language.

    Slightly off topic I know!

  11. […] areas such as biological and medical research). And as I’ve described in a post on “Is Second Life Accessible?” innovative technologies such as Second Life can bring substantuial benefits to the user […]

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