On Thursday, September 1, Shyla the Super Gecko led a bunch of us on a simply amazing guided tour of her building on Ethnographia Island. We encourage you to visit it yourself (link), not least because the building continues to grow and transform as Shyla works on it. Below is the text of Shyla’s tour—including not only a detailed description of her creation, but some fascinating and insightful thoughts about disability, virtual worlds, and inclusion.

When I was first approached about Ethnographia Island I thought, “What can I do? I don’t build, I write.” I remember contacting Tom and Tredi saying I was okay with participating, but I’m more a writer than a builder.

It didn’t seem to bother them at all. They encouraged me and for months I put a dock on a plot and it sat with a few poems I had written. Little by little I added more. But a poem on a prim, well… if it can be seen it can be read, but if it can’t be seen – it’s just another barrier.

At some point I realized I can’t change the world, but in Second Life I don’t have to—I just have to figure out how to create accessible things. Poems on prims that the blind can read or hear, poems in audio that the deaf can read, and what about poetry that anyone can read or hear and experience!

I learned from an organization called Virtual Ability, Inc. how to create presentations which allowed me to present in text and voice simultaneously while providing a slide presentation. So why couldn’t I take it a step further with creative expression?

My goal, via my exhibit at Ethnographia Island, is to create a multi-sensory exhibit which is accessible to anyone. I wish I could say I have succeeded, but I’m not there yet. But let's start with what multi-sensory means in a techie virtual world like Second Life.

Here at Ethnographia Island, we are a community of creators with disabilities. We don’t always discuss our disabilities amongst ourselves. And I don’t know what everyone’s disabilities are here on Ethnographia Island.

For many of us, being a virtual world allows us to leave our disabilities behind. If real life requires we use assistive devices to move around, we can choose to wear such devices in the virtual world, or not. We can appear as we do in real life, or we can appear, well, as I do. As a gecko. Or any one of an infinite number of ways.

But some disabilities come to the virtual world. Sensory disabilities, such as low hearing or deafness and low visibility or blindness. Our virtual world includes sounds; some areas are voice-driven more than text-driven. And without question our virtual world is high in visual content and graphics.

I have been appreciative of all I have learned from those with hearing and visual impairments in Second Life. But mostly I have learned they face many of the same barriers in Second Life as they do in real life. And there is one more added “barrier’ here. Whereas in real life, many governments realize the importance of ensuring everyone’s ability to participate equally in society, Linden Lab does not view that as their—or anyone’s—inherent responsibility. So Second Life is a great experiment, to see if we can learn to live together under some very limited constructs.

What this means for some members of our community is several things, some of which we have been able to have share at Ethnographia’s chat sessions. There are those who don’t believe blind or deaf people participate in virtual worlds. They assume, incorrectly, they would not bother with it due to the high audio and graphical content.

Some think avatars which indicate they are deaf or blind are “role playing” even when they are providing this information in an area not designated for roleplaying. So the request for text or assistance in identifying an object goes unheeded.

On top of this, are the myriad issues created by creators themselves. As you walk through this display, please note that every object (I hope) is named. If you right-click on any object in this display and look under the General tab in the Name field, there will be a description of what you clicked.

Some are simple and short, like “Wall.” This allows a visually impaired member of our community to use a screen reader to determine what they are near or interacting with.

There are no special characters. Text readers read each and every special character letter by letter. Second Life is full of what are called “gestures” which contain numerous special characters. Some even type out images in characters such as hyphens and slashes. Now imagine you can’t see the gesture on the screen, but instead you listen to it being spoken character by character, with no detail of the spacing or ability to see the image created. And there is no way today for visually impaired folks to turn these gestures off!

People who are at risk of seizures or have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can turn off particle effects as a safety precaution, but visually impaired people are stuck listening to every single character of a gesture. There’s a sub-point here. Linden Lab says they are not in the business of addressing assistive needs, but they allow particles to be turned off. Sometimes the decisions can appear inconsistent. I know turning off particle effects can also reduce lag. But turning off gestures might be desirable by many more than just people with disabilities.

But I digress...My installation includes poetry I have written in Second Life. Some relates to my real life, but all was written here. Each panel is named with the poem title, and each can be clicked for a notecard, which a screen reader can convert to voice for visually impaired users.

I changed my user name to “Shyla the Super Gecko” recently because it provides a textual concept of my visual image in Second Life. I appear in Second Life as a gecko with a cape—a Super Gecko. I go by the name Shyla. So my user name is concise and, though it does not describe everything about me, it provides significantly more context than just “Shyla.”

To get to the second floor, you walk a ramp, which also has a poem on it. The ramp is also a way of saying to those with physical disability that I know they are part of my community, and they are welcome here.

Even though physically disabled persons can easily traverse most anything in Second Life, as a physically disabled person myself, I do feel a sense of warmth when I see someone has used ramps and not stairs, or at a minimum provided an alternative to stairs that would accommodate me in real life. It tells me they know I exist and I am a part of their building consideration. At a deeper level it reminds me I am part of the “tribe,” a part of the “whole.” I wasn’t forgotten. It feels like getting a hug, even when no one is there.

All of these poems are provided visually via text and imagery. There is no music assigned to them. But if I had provided music, I would have provided a footnote on each panel and notecard describing the music selection and providing a description of its meter, or how it might make me move. People who are deaf may or may have never heard music, but some ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters add rhythm to their sign language. This adds a visual component that adds to the interpretation. Here is an example of a music video with ASL.

The signer provides ASL, lip reading movement as well as moving the rhythm. As the music crescendos, the interpreters’ movement becomes more pronounced. All of this works together to convey the words, the tone, the emotional feeling and overall impact of the song.

We can add the same sort of information if music is provided with a build. If we have a nature area, we can advise there are birds chirping by having text appear in nearby chat (which text readers will read) which says “the birds chirp pleasantly.”

A camping area with bears could provide a simple script to post in nearby chat which says something simple and fun, like “Bear grunts! Please ensure your food is stored properly!”

This takes nothing from the audible experience, while making it more inclusive for our friends who cannot hear.

The second floor of my build takes the concept to the next level (which is not fully achieved). The idea here is to provide the poems via audio, text and a 3D visual experience. This would fulfill the idea of full “immersion” into a poem. If you have all your senses, you can use them all. If any are lacking, the experience is still fulfilling because it provides multiple ways of experiencing the poem. By including object names, notecards, audio voice of the poem being read (not available yet), an ability to walk around or on the poetry in context, well, you get the idea.

There are some serious constraints adding audio to Second Life. I can record to YouTube and provide audio on a prim, but it is a bit “iffy” at times. You can upload sound bits, but when I do it, it sounds very bumpy. Inevitably, it will require the talent of others to assist me further.

In between I have other projects. Right now I am experimenting with uploading sound prims to provide audio cues to blind persons who wish to drive in Second Life. This is an easier project sound wise, as the sound cues are very short; not the length of a full poem. Second Life allows the upload of sound bits less than ten seconds quite well.

The audio cues for driving will be very short. “Left-45,” which indicates the road is turning to the left at a 45-degree angle. The next part will be to determine how much before the curve to put the audio prim.

Sadly, although this is a wonderful idea, the current text viewer we have, Radegast, requires its users to be in 3D mode to drive a vehicle. The 3D mode makes the car sounds very loud, so the ability to hear the prims are limited. It’s an experiment. We will see how it works, if at all.

I hope this has provided some insight as to where virtual worlds can take the concept of “full accessibility” and “accessible immersion” through multi-sensory builds which heighten the experience not just for PWD, but for non-sensory deprived users as well.

I hope the things I don't know yet, that I don't understand yet, or which I didn't convey well, I hope people will share with me, with all of us. I know what it feels like to not feel fully included—I really think we have all been there from time to time. And if we think about that place, why would we ever create anything that would seem out-of-bounds or inaccessible to anyone?

So I am open to hearing what can make things feel more inclusive. All this poetry here, all of it is about feelings. More important than money, more important than shiny things, even more important than flies (for a gecko)—are feelings.

Knowing the feeling of being “considered,” being “valued” because we exist, not because we are a majority or profitable or some other silly measure of value—because we “are.” Thinking in those terms about those around us is a bloody good kick in the pants!

p.s. I wish to especially thank all those who have taken time to help me learn: Virtual Ability, Dreams, Ethnographia Island, Builder’s Brewery and so, so many individuals who took me aside and shared tips—they are too numerous to mention, but each helped to make my build possible. There’s a part of each of them in my installation.