1995 VR Conference Proceedings

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Paul Jones
College of Education, University of Nevada
Las Vegas, NV

Janis Riceberg
Durango High School
Las Vegas, NV


The problem to be addressed in this paper is employment of persons who have visual disability. Economic implications of employment are, of course, obvious. Lowman (1991), however, emphasizes that career implications go much further. An individual's personal identity and opportunity to reach desired goals are also, for example, among the factors integrally related to employment.

The loss of employment associated with adventitious blindness (Miller, 1991) has been compared to the grief experience associated with the death of a family member. It is thus particularly troubling when data indicate (Kirchner, 1988) that persons with visual disability are much less likely to be in the workforce than their sighted peers. A report from the Bureau of the Census (Demographics Update, 1995) found a poverty rate among persons with severe visual limitations aged fifteen years or older to be approximately twice as high as the rate among persons with no disabilities. For persons with visual disability, problems of unemployment and underemployment are major concerns. There are, in addition, broader implications for society as a whole. Visual disability while typically defined as a low incidence handicapping condition is far from being rare.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (Nelson & Dimitrova, 1993) suggests that there are approximately one and one-half million adults in the U.S. in the age range of eighteen to sixty-five who have a severe visual impairment. While the problem of employment is clear, solutions have been slow in coming. As with most complex problems, it is likely that the answer is not singular but instead involves a number of interacting factors. There is data (Jones, in press; Jones, 1983) which suggests with very few exceptions that there are few differences in core personality characteristics between persons who do and do not have visual disability. Assistive technology has provided tools which compensate in many work settings for visual loss.

The Americans with Disabilities Act would seem, at the very least, to have resulted in employers being more aware of the needs and potential contributions of persons with disabling conditions. Since technological advancements have provided adaptive equipment to allow more equity in work opportunities, and there is incentive for employers to make those opportunities available, this would seem to suggest that personality traits are the employment problem. It is the premise here, however, that the present adaptive equipment is necessary, but not sufficient. In this paper we will focus on three areas in which applications in virtual reality would appear to be particularly significant in enhancing vocational opportunities for persons with visual disability: mobility, employment skills, and career guidance.


Before moving to the three specific areas of potential application for persons with visual disability, a brief introduction to virtual reality may be helpful. Virtual reality is a cutting-edge technology that combines high- speed computers with sensors capable of measuring motion, heat, and spatial relationships. (LaFee, 1993). It often includes a head-referenced computer display that gives the user the illusion of displacement to another location (Ellis, 1994). For example, it is as if a person is pretending to drive a car using a simulator in a classroom or playing a video game where the picture on the screen positions the player at the controls of a high flying mission. Virtual reality creates an environment where a person potentially can touch, smell, hear, taste, and see things without actually being there.

Jaron Lanier, acknowledged by most as the creator of virtual reality, developed 3-D goggles and sensor laden gloves to be used with computer games, allowing a player to actually “jump into" the computer and be a part of the game. The game would be all around the player in a three dimensional format. The gloves would allow the player to feel the sensations of the surrounding scenes by fiber-optic cables and tiny electronic sensors that measure flex and tactile stimulation (LaFee, 1993). Taking Lanier's creation a step further, the goggles and sensor laden gloves could be the key to open the doors for the visually impaired. Walter Greenleaf, President of Greenleaf Medical Systems, in fact has suggested that people with disabilities could soon be barrier free because virtual reality programs would individualize each person's particular assets and minimize their deficits (LaFee, 1993).

Imagine being blind and in an unfamiliar office. The apprehension associated with not knowing where doorways and obstacles are located could be overwhelming. Imagine trying to make a good impression on a present or potential supervisor while struggling to identify the placement of furniture in the office. Certainly there are persons with visual disability who have remarkable mobility skills. And, certainly, there are supervisors and prospective employers sensitive to the special needs of such individuals. The real world, however, is unfortunately far from perfect. The employer who underestimates an applicant's capabilities because the applicant appears clumsy during initial interview is an employer who needs education in interpreting the implications of behavior. But it could be the applicant with visual disability who remains without a job. With the help from virtual reality technology a blind person could actually scan the office with a laser cane and know the layout. Such a cane, equipped with different pitches of sounds, would "sing" according to the size, depth, closeness, and distance an object is to it. Mastery of use of this type of cane could begin in a virtual reality simulator.

It is often emphasized that use of the traditional cane is especially important for the adventitiously blind adult. The cane serves as an immediate identifier and can often help others to understand the reasons for movements which to the sighted may appear awkward and be misidentified as signs that the person is under the influence of some substance. With specific reference to the workplace, however, there is another side to the cane. Without denying the reality of the noted values of cane use, it is also a reality that the cane will serve as a continuing reminder to all that this employee is somehow "different". The point of the above is not to argue for or against the use of the cane. It is instead to emphasize that virtual reality applications may provide a choice. For example, the technology built into a cane could instead be built into a small vest. Sounds emitted from the vest and perhaps made audible only to the user could serve as an alternative, providing the layout of a room, leaving the hands free. Whether a cane, vest, or something completely different is used (history suggests that devices become smaller and more portable), the person with visual disability is relieved of a major barrier both while applying for and when working at a job.

Clearly virtual reality would likely have a positive affect on the employer, but an equally important impact could be on the confidence of the person with the disability. Mobility is, of course, more than just awareness of placement of objects in a room. Simulation is still another application of virtual reality which could enhance a visually impaired person's feelings of independence, self sufficiency, and employability. For example, when teaching orientation and mobility skills to a visually impaired person, caution and safety is imperative when crossing a street. With a virtual reality simulator the person could use vibrating goggles or glasses that will intensify as a vehicle approaches. For use by persons with some residual vision, the glasses could also be fitted with a wide angle lens to allow for peripheral vision. The use of the simulator allows the individual to first become competent and confident in identifying the different vibrations before confronting the actual task of crossing the street.

The second area of potential application of virtual reality to be addressed in this paper involves the development of employment skills. With technology somewhat more complex than vibrating goggles, virtual reality simulations could provide a viable substitute to replicate experiences common to the sighted person but often denied to the person with visual disability. For example, it is quite common for a sighted student to visit a parent in the work setting. During such visit a great deal of observational learning will take place. If the work setting is an office, that student might very well later obtain summer employment in an entry level position such as a messenger. For the student with visual disability, virtual reality could provide an alternative path to this type of observational learning. Using the same example, a virtual reality simulator could be made available in a high school, replicating the tasks used in a job such as a messenger in an office. The virtual reality simulator would be equipped with sensor gloves, boots, and a headset.

For the student with partial vision, the headset would contain a pair of miniature cathode ray tubes (CRTs) or liquid-crystal TV screens-one placed in front of each eye for stereo viewing-as well as magnifying lenses to generate a wide field-of-view and correct for the visual condition. For all students, the headset would also house sensing devices that measure the position and orientation of the wearer's head and report changes in viewpoint to the computer (Sheridan & Zelter, 1993). The simulator would be programmed to the lay-out of a particular building. As the messenger travels through the simulated corridors, the glove would imitate the same feel of the walls with different sensation to represent windows, elevators and stairwells. The boots would have sensors on them to identify steps (going up and down), curbs, and drop offs. Timing would be extremely important in knowing when an obstacle would be approaching and where it is located. With sufficient programming, the high school student with visual impairment, applying for a summer job as a messenger, would enter the interview with as much if not more awareness of the layout of the building as would a sighted person. The implications of this application of virtual reality technology are staggering. For the person with partial vision the computer simulation might even be able to correct for the disability.

Some work (Peli, Arend, & Timberlake, 1986) in producing computer graphics specific to visual impairments has already been done. It is important to emphasize, however, that virtual reality simulations do not mandate visual input. Both Fischetti (1993) and Geake (1993) have noted that innovations in the application of virtual reality, allow for the replacement of computer screens with headphones providing sounds which create a three-dimensional auditory environment. The use of virtual reality in this context would seem the next logical step in the progression of teaching employment skills. A program at Durango High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, currently includes instruction in the transition skills needed by the student with visual disability for success in the world of work, post-high school. Students learn how to use adaptive equipment, including discussion of how to obtain funds for equipment both at the federal and local levels. In addition each student "job shadows" a visually impaired or blind person who is working in the community, learning what tools and equipment are necessary for the job and how they work.

At the national level, the American Foundation for the Blind has created a Careers and Technology Information Bank, a network of 1700 blind and visually impaired persons willing to be contacted to, among other things, exchange job-related information or information about assistive technology with other visually impaired individuals. Both of these programs provide the individual with an opportunity to obtain first hand knowledge about job requirements, work settings, and so forth. For all students, sighted and visually impaired, there are common needs. All students who want to be employed need to know interviewing skills, acceptable social behavior on the job, and the skills necessary to keep the job. The student with visual impairment, however, has additional need for knowledge and use of adaptive equipment, such as closed circuit T.V's, talking computers, clocks, calculators, dictionaries, braille, slate and stylus, specialized tape recorders, electronic readers and dictaphones. Virtual reality simulations could address both the generic and specific needs.

Simulations could create opportunities for simulated job shadowing with many more persons than is possible with the constraints of real life. Through virtual reality, a student's contact with a person working in an occupation could include far more information than is available through phone or other communication modalities. Sensory gloves and boots would emit transmitters that simulate the feel of different tactile experiences; brick, carpet, pavement, velvet, loose pebbles, tile, aluminum, wood, etc. Auditory stimuli could simulate the artificial sounds in a work setting, as well as the sounds of natural phenomena such as thunder, rain, wind, and rustling leaves. All would be in a context of "surround sound", assisting the individual to habituate to the sensory stimuli of a workplace. For the specific needs of the visually impaired, a virtual reality simulator could teach students how to use many forms of adaptive technology without ever leaving the classroom.

The third potential application of virtual reality for meeting vocational needs of persons with visual disability is the most complex, building on the prior applications. A sighted person seeking career counseling has a variety of available resources including psychological tests designed to help guide the occupational exploration or selection process. Lowman (1991) suggests that career counseling may be the most important function in the practice of psychology. For the person with visual disability, the choices are limited. In fact, Price, Mount, & Coles (1987) assert that psychologists involved with test development have essentially turned their backs on the needs of persons with visual impairment. More is involved than just modifying the administration format to include braille or oral administration of the tests. Research (Jones, in press) suggests that the most widely used test of vocational interests appears to systematically underrepresent the extent of interest in some occupational fields when used with adults who have visual disability.

The career interests which seem most often underestimated are those involving technical areas, mathematics,and science. Preliminary data from a study being conducted by the authors suggests that this same phenomenon is also evident when testing secondary school students who have visual impairment. Mathematics and science are of particular concern because these are areas in which assistive technology could be most helpful in creating equitable work opportunities and are areas in which job opportunities continue to expand. Unfortunately, most often, a person with visual disability seeking career assistance will encounter the extreme of "you can do anything" or an opposite pole suggesting "let's look for some kind of job in which you won't have to move around very much". The former is misleading; the latter is demeaning. Consider an alternative in which that person, instead, sits at a computer console and activates a program especially designed to assist in career exploration for persons with visual disability. Questions are presented in digitized sound with voice input technology used for the responses. Consider further that the person's responses suggest that lasting success and satisfaction are most likely in job settings where communication is more often through the written rather than spoken word, where there is an established routine, where work involves tangible products, and where problem solving is focused on the technical aspects rather than the people involved.

The computer program then provides a listing of the most popular occupations consistent with those characteristics. The user selects occupations about which further information is desired and, with gloves and headset is then virtually transported into the job setting. One of the jobs, for example, which is consistent with the above characteristics is that of the certified public accountant. Through virtual reality the individual could simulate a brief "job shadow" of the CPA. But, important to the concept, the individual could also, in a brief period of time, simulate a job shadow of variety of other occupations also consistent with these characteristics. A virtual reality application would, of course, be advantageous for the sighted as well as the person with visual impairment. For the sighted, however, the advantages would be incremental over present techniques. For the persons with visual disability the advantages would be exponential. The research by the authors cited earlier found adults and high school students with visual disability more likely than their sighted peers to select occupations associated with the helping professions, for example teachers, counselors, and social workers. In part this appears to be a function of the stimuli used for the assessment. It is likely, however, that another factor contributing to this expression of preference is related to the occupations of adults with whom the person has had the most contact. Clearly, virtual reality would open the door for the person with visual disability to have vicarious contact with more persons from a wider variety of occupational groups.


Along with the excitement and optimism in virtual reality, there is also need for some caution. An obvious downside to virtual reality is that it is very expensive. According to John Trimble of Prairie Virtual Systems (LaFee, 1993), one simulator may cost from $65,000 to $250,000. The population of persons with visual impairment is a small market. Mass production of sophisticated electronic equipment for this population alone is unlikely. At the present time, most of the high tech simulators, for example wind tunnels, zero gravity simulators, space capsules, etc., are government owned. To make the simulators cost effective, the marketing arena must expand to reach a larger population. Virtual reality and the computer industry are always changing. New programs, inventions, and ideas are always surfacing. The applications described in this paper will require significant flexibility in the technology. A simulator of a specific room may be current to a person's needs, but those needs change. Innovations are needed which would result in simulators easier to manipulate, faster to image, and hopefully less expensive to operate. Experience with assistive technology has demonstrated that equipment availability does not guarantee equipment usage. Teachers in the school setting and trainers in the corporate setting will be needed to teach and facilitate use of the simulators, tailoring the application to the specific needs of the individual.

While the core personality characteristics of persons with visual disability do not appear different from the sighted peers, an external locus of control is more prevalent among persons with visual impairment. A higher level of general anxiety is evident among persons who have recently become legally blind. This finding is particularly important because these two characteristics (Jones, 1992) have been shown to be related to reluctance in use of technology. Thus, the trainer will need to be cognizant of characteristics associated with the experience of vision loss which may impact the frequency of use of the very technology designed to reduce the impact of the disability.

Finally, it is critical that there be frequent interaction between the architects of the technology, persons with the disability, and persons with extensive experience in working with the population for whom the technology is being designed. From the examples described earlier, it would have seemed completely appropriate for a designer creating virtual reality settings used in career guidance to base the program on results of the most widely used and highly renowned test of vocational interests. The actual data, however, suggests that this might serve only to perpetuate the problem. To an inordinate degree, the person with visual disability would most likely have continued to be steered in an inappropriate direction. Research into virtual reality is just beginning. It has scratched the surface in the entertainment industry, capitalized on the toy companies, and has given minds a new dimension. It may be years before virtual reality will actually become an affordable "reality" for most of the population. The examples provided here suggest that needs of persons with visual disability warrant a high priority in the continuing development of this technology.


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