Universal life: the use of virtual worlds among people with disabilities


With their emphasis on 3D graphics and complex interface controls, it would appear that virtual worlds have little to offer to people with disabilities. On the contrary, multi-user virtual environments, such as Linden Lab’s Second Life platform, serve as a form of augmented reality where users transcend physiological or cognitive challenges to great social and therapeutic benefit. A number of intriguing developments exist within the accessibility sector, making barrier-free access an important aspect of the interaction experience. Examples include haptic input devices for the blind, virtual regions developed according to Universal Design principles, communities dedicated to people with cognitive disorders, the use of the avatar as counselor, and customizable personae that either transcend or represent a disabled person’s self-identity. This paper investigates research methods and case studies affiliated with virtual environments, as well as the ways inclusive design removes barriers to access for users with disabilities.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Fig. 11


  1. 1.

    Bell, M.: Toward a definition of ‘virtual worlds’. J. Virtual Worlds Res. 1(1): 1941–8477 (2008)

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Rufer-Bach, K.: Conduct business. In: The Second Life Grid, pp. 76–86. Wiley Publishing, Indianapolis (2009)

  3. 3.

    Reeves, B., Read, J.L.: Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People work and Businesses Compete, p. 237. Harvard Business Press, Boston (2009)

  4. 4.

    Hinton, A.: Clues to the future. http://www.inkblurt.com/2006/01/23/ia-summit-2006-clues-to-the-future/ (2006). Accessed 24 April 2008

  5. 5.

    Carter, W., Corona, G.: Untangling the Web—Exploring Methods of Accessing Virtual Worlds. AFB Access World, 9(2) (2008). Accessed 17 January 2008

  6. 6.

    Duranske, B.: Big picture questions in virtual law. In: Duranske, B.T. (ed.) Virtual Law, pp. 20–23. ABA Publishing, Chicago (2008)

  7. 7.

    Bennesten, H.: Augmentation vs immersion. Second Life Creativity. http://slcreativity.org/wiki/index.php?title=Augmentation_vs_Immersion (2006). Accessed 16 October 2010

  8. 8.

    Brady, J.: How ‘second life’ therapy helps Asperger’s patients. WFAA. http://www.wfaa.com/sharedcontent/dws/wfaa/localnews/news8/stories/wfaa080111_lj_brady.11fb5bac.html (2008). Accessed 10 January 2009

  9. 9.

    Ramachandran, V.: On my mind. Seed. 7ttp://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2006/10/on_my_mind_vs_ramachandran.php (2006). Accessed 10 January 2009

  10. 10.

    Bloomfield, R.: Studying real-world business in virtual worlds. Terra Nova. http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2007/05/studying_realwo.html (2007). Accessed 16 October 2010

  11. 11.

    Deeley, L.: Is this real life, is this just fantasy? The Times online. http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/body_and_soul/article1557980.ece (2008). Accessed 30 December 2008

  12. 12.

    Mollman, S.: Avatars in Rehab: Getting Therapy In Virtual Worlds. CNN online. http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/07/16/db.secondlifetherapy/index.html (2008). Accessed 12 July 2008

  13. 13.

    Legrand, R.: Virtual ability Island: introducing people in SL in a gentle way. Mixed Realities. Available from http://www.mixedrealities.com/?p=352 (2008). Accessed 16 August 2008

  14. 14.

    Dyck, J., Pinelle, D., Brown, B., Gutwin, C.: Learning from games: HCI design innovations in entertainment software. Proc. Graphics Interface 2003 (GI′03). Halifax (2003)

  15. 15.

    Jones, A.: Decorporealization. In: Jones C (ed) Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, p. 133. MIT Press, Cambridge (2006)

  16. 16.

    Prensky, M.: Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 1–6 (2001). doi:10.1108/10748120110424843

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    White, G.: Haptics. Second Life for the Visually Impaired. http://blindsecondlife.blogspot.com/2008/01/haptics.html (2008). Accessed 20 May 2008

  18. 18.

    Ingham, T.: 20% of Casual Gamers are Disabled. Casual Gaming. http://www.casualgaming.biz/news/27527/20-of-casual-gamers-are-disabled (2008). Accessed 24 April 2008

  19. 19.

    White, G., Fitzpatrick, G., McAllister, G.: Toward Accessible 3D Virtual Environments for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Proc: ACM international conference, vol. 349. Brighton (2008)

  20. 20.

    De Pascale, M., Mulatto, S., Prattichizzo, D.: Bringing Haptics to Second Life for Visually Impaired People. Proc: 6th international conference on haptics, perception, devices and scenarios. Madrid (2008)

  21. 21.

    Adams-Spink, G.: Technique links words to signing. BBC News online. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6993326.stm (2007). Accessed 20 May 2008

  22. 22.

    Adams-Spink, G.: Virtual worlds open up to blind. BBC News online. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6993739.stm (2007). Accessed 20 May 2008

  23. 23.

    Carter, W., Corona, G.: Virtual worlds user interface for the blind. http://services.alphaworks.ibm.com/virtualworlds/?open&S_TACT=105AGX59&S_CMP=GRsite-lnxw07&ca=dgr-lnxw07awvirtualworlds (2008). Accessed 11 December 2008

  24. 24.

    Linden, P.: Beautiful Visions beyond Sight: Guide Dogs and Helen Keller Day in Second Life. Second Life. https://blogs.secondlife.com/community/learninginworld/blog/2009/06/17/beautiful-visions-beyond-sight-guide-dogs-and-helen-keller-day-in-second-life (2009). Accessed 30 June 2009

  25. 25.

    Dyck, J., Pinelle, D., Brown, B., Gutwin, C.: Learning from games: HCI design innovations in entertainment software. EECS computer science division proceedings. University of California, Berkeley (2003)

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Gee, A.: Control your computer with your mind. Biz-tech. http://www.bit-tech.net/hardware/peripherals/2010/08/11/control-your-pc-with-your-mind/ (2010). Accessed 6 September 2010

  27. 27.

    Hand, R.: Virtual worlds for patient rehabilitation. Vizworld. http://www.vizworld.com/2010/03/virtual-worlds-patient-rehabilitation/ (2010). Accessed 3 March 2010

  28. 28.

    Phillips, A.: Asperger’s therapy hits second life. ABC News online. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/OnCall/Story?id=4133184 (2007). Accessed 20 May 2008

  29. 29.

    Stein, R.: Limits, inhibitions disappear online. Seattle Times online. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003931084_netavatar07.html (2007). Accessed 20 May 2008

  30. 30.

    Au, J.: The Making of Second Life, pp. 203–207. HarperCollins, New York (2008)

  31. 31.

    JMB.: Wilde Cunningham: a heartwarming story. Nobody Important. http://nobodyimportant-jmb.blogspot.com/2008/10/wilde-cunningham-heartwarming-story.html (2008). Accessed 29 December 2008

  32. 32.

    Nino, T.: Second Life objects to become HTTP-aware. Massively. http://www.massively.com/2009/07/08/second-life-objects-to-become-http-aware/ (2009). Accessed 10 July 2009

  33. 33.

    Carr, D.: Virtually accessible. In: Access: The Inclusive Design Journal. Available from http://learningfromsocialworlds.wordpress.com/9-virtually-accessible/ (2009). Accessed 16 February 2009

  34. 34.

    Carr, D.: Virtually accessible. Access: The Incl. Des. J. RNIB. pp. 23–25. (2009)

  35. 35.

    Johnson, H.M.: Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales From a Life, p. 253. Picador, New York (2006)

  36. 36.

    Negroponte, N.: Nicholas Negroponte: world-renowned technology visionary. National Speakers Bureau. http://nsb.com/speakers/view/nicholas-negroponte (2011). Accessed 20 August 2011

Download references


The author thanks Alice Krueger, MS, Allison Selby, MS and Dr. David Toub, MD, MBA for their insightful feedback.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kel Smith.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Smith, K. Universal life: the use of virtual worlds among people with disabilities. Univ Access Inf Soc 11, 387–398 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10209-011-0254-8

Download citation


  • Accessibility
  • Virtual worlds
  • Second Life
  • Haptics
  • Visual impairment
  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Universal Design
  • Immersive environments
  • Education
  • Technology
  • Blind