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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

March 11, 2021

Even though this is only week six it was necessary to cover the content for Class 7 due to scheduling issues. So, we visited Gentle Heron and her team at Virtual Ability Island, with Sitearm Madonna in support.

Class at VAI
Gentle Heron welcomed the class to Virtual Ability Island.

With over twenty participants it took a little time to arrange handing out Landmarks (LM) to everyone and ensuring you all knew how to Teleport (TP) to the location. But, eventually we all gathered in the Yellow Hibiscus Cabana and were being warmly welcomed by Gentle who gave a brief outline of the history and development of Virtual Ability Island. She noted that in addition to speaking to us her talk is given in text chat also so that those who are deaf can participate. She asked us to use chat in addition to voice also, adding that the community tries to be inclusive at all times. The role of Virtual Ability (both the community and the island) is to provide a place where people with disabilities can find others like themselves with whom to relate. But, they don’t want to live in isolation from others who do not share their disabilities: they are not a virtual ‘leper colony’. About a quarter of the members do not (yet!) have disabilities and they are called TABs, (Temporarily Able Bodied). They may be a parent, spouse, child, or friend of a person with a disability; a professional or non-professional caregiver; an academic researcher, medical professional or an educator. They have been in SL for over thirteen years and is widely recognised for its service to the community, winning the inaugural Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world’.

The community is supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability Inc. and is probably the first SL entity to be given legal real life (RL) nonprofit designation. However, Gentle rejects the term RL for ‘real life’ when it is used to distinguish the physical world from the virtual world. Some avatars may not be realistic if one means they are a replica of the individual sitting at the computer operating it but, they are realistic in terms of the person who created them. Their avatars express their personal sense of self.

The community embraces diversity. In fact, the population of people with disabilities is the largest minority group in the world and is the most varied. It is common to hear that even people with the same diagnosis have very different life experiences and symptoms. The diversity is a constant for all interactions, requiring a group value of respect and accommodation. Just as in other communities the members form both close and informal relationships and promote mutual support among members. Potential new members are asked what the community can do for them and what they can do for the community. The emphasis is on Ability not DISability.

The development of the community has been organic and it is now recognised within the larger SL ecosystem. It is maintained by the continued interest of members who volunteer their time to support initiatives like the HeathInfo Island where the focus is on health and wellness rather than disabilities and impairments. There are also many educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities and the Path of Support which gives information about more than 120 disability peer support communities so far identified in SL.

The community also has three residential islands, with private properties around the edges and public land in the central area. On Cape Able there is an art gallery where the current exhibitor, Tucker Stilley, controls the computer with his eyes. Cape Serenity hosts a library with works by VAI authors and other well known writers who you may not have realised have a disability. The art gallery and library offer only work created by people with disabilities.

Gentle then divided the class into two smaller groups, one remained with Gentle and John at Yellow Hibiscus and the other departed for the nearby Blue Pavilion with Sitearm. Gentle introduces Suellen and James Heartsong. Suellen has diabetes with related neuropathy issues in her feet. After a career as a 911 dispatcher serving over thirty years and being used to a microphone she has naturally become a DJ here. She and James are married in both SL and RL. She is editor of Virtual Abilities Facebook and also backup estate manager for the VAI residential islands. Suellen also acts as a Virtual Ability Ambassador with a group doing diabetic support. She said that the campfire sessions, dance parties and just chatting to others are her favourite things to do here.

James has Multiple Sclerosis and arrived in SL after reading about the virtual world in an MS magazine. But, he found it too complicated and didn’t hang about. A few years later he tried again and discovered Virtual Ability. The welcome he received and the support for PWDs (Persons With Disabilities) led him to join the community where he was completely accepted for who he is. He believes the community helps people with disabilities regain a sense of self worth and seek out better ways to improve their lives. James concluded ‘I may have MS, but MS does NOT have me! Here is where I belong.’

Gentle opened the discussion for Q&A by reminding us to type our questions into chat in addition to speaking them. Kevin asked if it was difficult to trust people in the environment when first joining? Suellen answered that it wasn’t difficult for her because she figured they couldn’t hurt her here but, she didn’t reveal any personal details. Gentle told us she originally came here with people she already knew and they stuck together so that helped. Fiach said that although he was aware of MS he is not sure what it entails? Gentle explained that it is a neurological disease that causes brain cells to die and scar. Different symptoms arise depending on which cells die: they can include physical, mental, emotional or sensory symptoms. This can lead to diverse problems from balance to swallowing. Hazzible wondered about a treatment he had heard about called Neuralink which is considered to resolve important brain and spine functions? Gentle said that since it is unknown what causes the disease it is not possible to cure it; only the symptoms can be treated. Neuralink is a brian-computer interface which is cool if your brain is normal but, as MS causes brain damage, she is doubtful about its potential to help with MS. James added that as a former martial arts instructor he also found that Chinese medicine arts were helpful where western medical options don’t exist.

John asked Suellen and James if they were married first in SL or in RL? Suellen replied that they first married in SL before she made the physical journey of over one thousand miles to live with James in RL. John also wondered how much time community members spend in SL? It can vary from an hour to twelve hours a day for Gentle but not all that time would be spent in Virtual Ability Island. Suellen spends a lot of her time at Health Info Island or at the residential sims. Hazzible asked what other activities are possible for fun? Suellen has taken up photography lately and she loves to go dancing in SL. She enjoys shopping for shoes that don’t hurt in SL, as they might do in RL due to her condition. James adds that there a lots of live performers in SL. Gentle takes classes as she loves to learn new things and VAI puts on two professional conferences annually that take a considerable amount of time to prepare for and organise. James says that they can also attend church safely in SL as there are no COVID-19 related restrictions! While they can log into their RL church via Zoom the SL church gives a greater feeling of community. As Gentle says: you can meet people from lots of different cultures in SL and, as long as you are respectful, it is a great way to broaden your perspectives. James reminds us that if you are rude you can be booted out! The conversation concluded with a reminder that although people cannot be physically hurt in SL and can always return home with a single click, people can be hurt emotionally because there is always a real individual person behind every avatar.

The other group then rejoined us and John thanked Gentle, Suellen, James, Slatan Dryke, iSkye Silverweb, Stepinwolf and Sitearm for their generosity and sharing their experiences and knowledge with us. Gentle invited the students to remain here and explore or feel free to return any time and said they enjoyed chatting with the students, who joined in with thanks and clapping.

Then we were treated to a unique performance of Riverdance by Slatan and iSkye who have small avatars known as Tinys. This dance defies description and needs to be seen to be believed!

Hazzible'e new slippers.
Hazzible acquired some new and distinctive footwear.

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