Personal Health|July 4, 2013 8:00 AM

Living the dream in Second Life

Coloradans with disabilities connect in virtual world for social, health perks

Right: In real life, Alice Krueger founded the interactive computer program Virtual Ability after her own diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Left: Krueger's avatar, Gentle Heron. Photo by Shelley Schlender/Colorado Public News

Right: In real life, Alice Krueger founded the interactive computer program Virtual Ability after her own diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Left: Krueger's avatar, Gentle Heron. Photo by Shelley Schlender/Colorado Public News

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Reported by Shelley Schlender
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Using her avatar, Alice Krueger moves around a spacious living room filled with her friends. The “party” is laid back. A man and woman relax on a gray couch, chatting. Others mingle about. These animated friends – all avatars – are talking about how they met, and about real life.

In real life, Krueger is in a wheelchair. She has multiple sclerosis and walks with the help of crutches. In the virtual world, the 63-year-old Centennial woman uses an avatar – a three-dimensional alter ego that she calls Gentle Heron. As Gentle Heron, Krueger has no physical restrictions. She can walk, dance, ride horses and even fly. And, she interacts daily with hundreds of other people across Colorado and the globe who – at least in the virtual world – also have no physical restrictions. In real life, most of them have disabilities, or live with and care for someone with a disability.

Krueger created the nonprofit computer program – called Virtual Ability – in 2007. The community, which is an island in the 3D computer world called Second Life, has grown to more than 700 people. Users create avatars – much like those popularized in the Hollywood movie Avatar. This particular community includes people who are blind or deaf, who have suffered strokes and amputations or have other disabilities. Many are homebound; their opportunities to interact with other people are otherwise limited.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in five Americans has some type of disability – and in Colorado that number is closer to one in four. Nursing students and their instructors are increasingly participating in online communities like Virtual Ability, as part of their training for treating patients with disabilities, including those with brain injuries, depression, and other mental-health issues.

“People who are disabled realize we are the largest minority – and the only minority that people can join, just by tripping off the sidewalk and taking a bad step,” Krueger said.

Krueger’s avatar, Gentle Heron. As Gentle Heron, Krueger can dance, ride horses and even fly as she interacts with medical professionals and people with disabilities from across Colorado. Photo by Shelley Schlender/Colorado Public News

Alice Krueger’s avatar, Gentle Heron. As Gentle Heron, Krueger can dance, ride horses and even fly as she interacts with medical professionals and people with disabilities from across Colorado. Photo by Shelley Schlender/Colorado Public News

Diane Skiba, a professor at the CU College of Nursing, estimates about 150 of her nursing students interact in the virtual world every year. The training helps build their nursing skills, she said. “It’s a great way to trial run a therapy without doing injury to the patient.”

But not everyone is completely sold. Mark Dubin, a retired professor of neuroscience at the University of Colorado, says computer programs like Virtual Ability can be therapeutic to some. And, he said, they help people with disabilities find and connect with each other online.

But, Dubin notes, figuring out how to use the computer program and manipulate the avatars can be complicated for many people. That, he said, restricts the number of people who can participate.

“I have no doubt it’s a therapeutic community,” he said. “The medium has potential, but not in its current form. There is a barrier to entry in terms of learning how to use them.”

But Krueger says there is a high motivation – and lots of online help – for learning how to use the program, which is free to users. She founded Virtual Ability after her own diagnosis in 2007.

“My friends and I were talking about our lives, and how it’s pretty terrible when you become disabled and can’t get out to see friends,” she said. “I didn’t want to just sit in my room and stare at walls – that’s not healthy. I figured maybe if we can’t do it in the real world, we can do in a virtual world.”

During a recent online gathering of avatars from across Colorado, users described their experiences.

“This is way more than a game,” said one avatar named Gitana, who in real life lives in Colorado Springs. “For some, it is the only way to get out and interact with people.”

Another user, James, described how, in the virtual world, he and Sue met and “eloped” to Las Vegas – and their ceremony was “officiated” by Tom Selleck. James actually lives in Fort Collins and has multiple sclerosis. Sue, who lives in Illinois, has diabetes and a heart condition. Their virtual love affair flourished, and she recently made the decision to move – in real life – to Fort Collins to be with James.

On the Virtual Ability “island,” some of the avatars walk and run and fly. Others – like the humans who operate them – are in wheelchairs. Some look like animated movie stars; one resembles a human with pointy elf ears.

“We’ve got everything you’ve got [in the real world] – plus we’ve got dragons and unicorns,” Krueger said.

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