Dr Denise Wood was recently awarded the inaugural Telstra-TJA Christopher Newell Prize for Telecommunications and Disability for her paper titled “Communicating in Virtual Worlds through an Accessible Web 2.0 Solution.”

Dr Wood, a researcher and senior lecturer in the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages at the University of South Australia, undertook the research as part of an Australian Learning and Teaching Council project to improve access to 3D virtual-learning environments and identify the benefits of Web 2.0 and 3D Virtual Worlds such as Second Life for people with disabilities.





ACCAN caught up with Denise for a chat about the Prize and her ongoing research. Below is a transcript of this interview. 

ACCAN: Firstly congratulations Denise on behalf of ACCAN on winning the inaugural Telstra-TJA Christopher Newell Prize for Telecommunications and Disability. We were delighted on your behalf.

Dr Wood: Thank you very much.

ACCAN: I wanted to ask you first of all about the late Christopher Newell, given it is the first year the prize has been awarded. Given you are both academics working across similar fields I wondered did you know Christopher personally?

Dr Wood: Yes absolutely, I knew Christopher for quite some years and also co-presented with him at one conference and obviously we were all impacted by his death. This is a great honour to be associated with him in this way.

ACCAN: Can you tell us about your paper that was awarded the prize “Communicating in Virtual Worlds through an Accessible Web 2.0 Solution” and why you decided to write it?

Dr Wood: It was a good opportunity to disseminate the findings of the research that we’ve been undertaking for the last two or three years and also to raise the awareness of the importance of accessibility in new media technologies. For a long time we’ve advocated for websites to be more accessible and we’ve still got a long way to go even with static websites. Given the problems associated with more complex websites and 3D virtual worlds incorporating rich media, it’s really more important than ever that we are proactive about finding ways to make these environments more accessible to people with disabilities. So I guess it was two-fold., First, it was an opportunity to showcase the current technologies that can make it possible for people to have more satisfying experiences with these media-rich environments and secondly, it enabled me to highlight the importance of accessibility as we move towards harnessing some of these newer technologies that can be on the one-hand more empowering and more liberating for people, and on the other hand, exacerbate existing issues around accessibility.

ACCAN: What sort of benefits can virtual worlds offer people with disabilities?

Dr Wood: I think the very fact that any kind of digital media format can be more accessible for people with sensory impairments if designed appropriately. This is particularly in the case of Web 2.0 and 3D virtual worlds, since the very nature of such environments is that they’re collaborative and can enhance social participation. So these environments provide a wonderful means by which people who may not have had the opportunity to communicate with friends, with colleagues and with peers through traditional avenues can interact with people around the world in a more social and collaborative environment.

ACCAN: Did your paper look at the different sorts of problems that needed to be overcome to allow people with different types of disability to participate?

Dr Wood: We were looking at the broad range of disabilities – sensory impairments, people with vision impairments, people who are blind, people with hearing impairments – and people with mobility impairments. Some of the rich media environments really create difficulties for people with sensory impairments. For example, video with audio with no provision for captions that we find in Web 2.0 environments. 3D world environments are incredibly visual, so it’s almost impossible for someone who is blind or someone with a significant visual impairment to navigate them. Some people argue “why would you bother... it’s a graphic interface; why not just make a text version for those people?” Well we know that’s not the solution. That denies people the opportunity to experience some of the wonderful sensory opportunities that are available through media-rich environments. For example, a lot of people assume that someone who’s blind wouldn’t experience much benefit in a 3D virtual world, but these environments often incorporate stereophonic surround sound and can therefore be a very enriching experience because people who cannot see the visuals can still get a sense of depth because of the way in which they can experience audio in those environments. And similarly of course, those with hearing impairments encounter a range of issues now that voice is used much more in these environments. So our focus has been on trying to make these media-rich environments a valuable experience for those with these kinds of impairments.

ACCAN: Are there any developers who are leading the way in terms of making these media rich environments accessible?

Dr Wood: With Web 2.0 we’re starting to see some really interesting technological solutions emerging such as YouTube’s automated captioning. It’s still very embryonic and we still have a long way to go, but these kinds of initiatives are signalling to the rest of the community that it does matter, not just for people with disabilities, but many people in the community who can benefit from more flexible and accessible delivery of rich media. If you don’t have audio speakers or headphones, for example, you are equally disabled, aren’t you? So we’re seeing some interesting initiatives emerging to address the need for improved access to such media.
Similarly, in relation to 3D virtual worlds we’re seeing a lot of communities in virtual worlds doing some amazing things to support fellow members of the community. It’s all about the power of collaboration between people working together for the benefit of the community as a whole.

ACCAN: Can you provide some examples of how people with disabilities are utilising these virtual worlds?

Dr Wood: There are over 100 disability-related support groups in 3D virtual worlds such as Second Life. Some of the better-known ones are Virtual Ability Incorporated, which was established by Alice Kruger from the US. Alice has multiple sclerosis and prior to the onset of her illness, she was a employed as an academic and researcher. Alice went into the virtual world seeking support and at that time she found that there were very few support groups in these environments. That’s what prompted her to establish a support group and from there it grew to a large organisation that became incorporated in its own right as a non-profit corporation based in Colorado, USA
There’s another group that followed a similar course called Virtual Helping Hands, we’ve worked very closely with them. That’s a group that provides mentorship and support as well as helping to develop some of the accessibility technologies used in virtual worlds. In fact our programmer, Charles Morris, is a member of that group. Wheelies was one of the very early groups established by Simon Stevens, a young man with cerebral palsy in the UK. So yes, there have been some fantastic initiatives such as those as well as smaller health groups focused on providing support for people with particular kinds of needs.

ACCAN: You said in your paper that virtual worlds can also enhance the learning experience for people with disabilities. Can you explain a bit more about that?

Dr Wood: The one thing about the 3D virtual world that’s different from communicating via an asynchronous discussion forum, text chat or even Skype, is the real sense of presence. So if you have students who have disabilities, or students studying externally in rural and remote locations who can’t come in and be part of a tutorial group on campus, these 3D virtual environments provide a means by which they can engage in collaborative activities with other students and the teacher. It’s very hard for someone to imagine, but you really do feel that you are part of the group when you are communicating with an avatar representation of the person in the 3D virtual world.

ACCAN: Thanks very much for your time Denise; it’s been a fascinating discussion and congratulations again on the recognition you have received for your work.

Dr Wood: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


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