Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Avatars for the wheelchair-bound: The value of inclusion in digital spaces

In brief --

Sociotechnical problem space: Any digital space that uses avatars that reflect the appearance of the user (specifically Yahoo! and Second Life here).

Implicated value: Inclusion

Direct stakeholders: Users with disabilities (specifically the wheelchair bound here)

Indirect stakeholders: Able users, avatar artists, programmers

Avatars and inclusion

Avatars are the representation of the user within digital spaces, and can range from flat, non-animated pictures to pseudo-3D models that explore virtual worlds. In this essay, I'll be analyzing the potential effect that limitations in avatar creation might have on a user's self-image and sense of inclusion. For the purpose of making a specific examination of the topic, I will reduce my scope to users who are wheelchair-bound, and avatars available through Yahoo! Avatars and the virtual world Second Life. I want to be explicit in drawing the distinction that, though I'm discussing the disabled community, inclusion is an issue separate from accessibility. Accessibility defines the ability to utilize technology as equally as non-disabled users; inclusion describes the equal accommodation of users who have disabilities without pity or discrimination.

Digital spaces allow for great malleability of identities because of the general lack of accountability. This has aspects both liberating--the ability to literally carve out a niche for one's self as a troll with a giant battle axe--and dangerous--middle-aged men posing as teen-age boys to lure unsuspecting minors into illegal sexual encounters. Even in cases where actual photographs of users are being used, for example on social networking sites, the user is able to manipulate or recontextualize the photo for the benefit of the image they are creating. Within the disabled community, there exists a range of approaches to creating online identities. Some choose to create fully-abled avatars for themselves, manufacturing an image that they were precluded from in real life. Others represent themselves more literally, choosing to bring the disabilities they face in real life to their avatars as well.

I believe this choice should be left to the user, and do not wish to debate, as some have within the disabled community, the authenticity of either choice. Whether or not a disabled user chooses to represent themselves as such through an avatar, the digital communities that provide the means to create such avatars should allow for the possibility. To not do so sends the message that such users are unwelcome or unwanted in the digital community.

Sociotechnological spaces -- two examples

Yahoo! is an example of a site that utilizes avatars meant to allow physical representation of the user. Through a series of menus, a user can select different skin colors, facial features, hairstyles, clothing and accessories. The amount of choices, especially in the latter two categories, is expansive. Recently, for example, they offered both pro-McCain and pro-Obama t-shirts for avatars to wear.

Despite the myriad fashion options, Yahoo! Avatars did not offer accessories for the disabled--crutches or wheelchairs--for the first three years of service, from 2004-2007. While able users could debate the unimportant choice of a plaid scarf versus a grey one, wheelchair-bound users were unable to represent a major part of their identity through their avatar. Today, wheelchair-bound users are still limited to three options per gender. For instance, males can choose between a suit-wearing avatar, a green-shirt-and-jeans-wearing avatar, or an avatar standing beside a wheelchair as though magically healed. Clothing options available to able users, such as the pro-candidate shirts mentioned above, are not available for an avatar seated in a wheelchair. In essence, while others are able to more fully represent themselves online, wheelchair-bound users are forced to choose between representing their disability or their personality.

A line of wheelchairs in Second Life, via Second Edition

Within the realm of Second Life, users are able to manufacture new accessories and appearances for their characters, and so users with disabilities are able to have greater control over aspects of their own inclusion. One successful group, Wheelies, serves as a positive example of such users representing their handicaps through avatars and building a sense of community. The group works out of a virtual nightclub, and distributes to new members a welcome package that includes a virtual wheelchair. The virtual dance floor at the Wheelies Nightclub finds avatars performing dance moves in their chairs alongside able-bodied avatars. Simon Stevens, the group's founder, has been featured in Newsweek and received an award from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his work in creating the group.

Direct stakeholders -- users with disabilities

People with disabilities often struggle to determine how their handicaps impact their identities. In addition, most go through life experiencing, at the least, curious stares, or worse, mockery and ridicule. In creating their online identities through avatars, if certain options are not available to them, the limitations may reinforce negative perceptions they have in the analogue world: disabilities are a repugnant aspect of appearance and identity, people with disabilities are disregarded by the able-bodied population, and that people with disabilities are unable to take part in any sort of community other than those made up of others like them.

Through allowing users with disabilities to include those disabilities as part of their avatar identity, websites and other digital spaces enable users to create a positive self-image of themselves as they are, and give them a sense of inclusion in the digital community.

Indirect stakeholders

Obvious indirect stakeholders include the artists and programmers who manufacture the avatars for use by the handicap community. In Yahoo!'s case, these programmers work on the corporation side, and must create new options for users with disabilities. This will involve research, both in studying designs of wheelchairs and other enabling devices, and in talking with the disabled community to discover what options are needed.

The less obvious, but more important, group of indirect stakeholders, are other able-bodied users. In education, the concept of inclusion works both ways. As students with disabilities experience equal education opportunities, able students are able to interact with a class of people who give them insights on equality, diversity and non-discrimination. In the digital world, the wheelchair is only a visual representation of a user's identity, and in a sense, the physical limitations of the wheelchair-bound user are negated. Typical users may find it easier to approach those with physical disabilities within the virtual world, whereas in real life, they may experience discomfort or anxiousness when confronted with a person in a wheelchair. In these digitally-mediated spaces, typical users may find it easier to adopt the previously mentioned insights on equality, diversity and non-discrimination. Those views might then generalize to real-life interactions with people who have disabilities.

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