1995 VR Conference Proceedings

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Virtual Reality's Increasing Potential For Meeting Needs of Persons With Disabilities: What About Cognitive Impairments?

Melissa Salem Darrow
Department of Special Education
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 27858-4353
(919) 328-4247; (919) 758-6499
EMAIL: eddarrow@ecuvm.cis.ecu.edu
FAX: (919)328-4219


Just a few years after the first gathering of the Virtual Reality (VR) and Disabilities professional and advocacy communities in 1992, research and development of virtual reality applications for persons with disabilities have changed from speculative, distant possibilities for the future, to flourishing, concrete actualities. Yet, even in the midst of this exciting increase in the number of VR applications for persons with disabilities, it is impossible to ignore an obvious dearth of VR research and development specifically for persons with cognitive impairments. This paper provides a brief summary of virtual reality applications thus far developed for persons with disabilities, and some discussion of how positive predictions for VR as an assistive technology and as a learning tool have held true for those persons with sensory, physical and even emotional impairments. Some reasons for the marked lack of research and development for persons whose impairments are specifically intellectual are postulated. Finally, categories of learning needs specific to persons with cognitive impairments to which VR technology might be effectively applied are suggested.

I. Introduction:

Virtual Reality Research and Application Development Continue to Gain Momentum Three years ago, I sat mesmerized at the first Virtual Reality and Persons with Disabilities Conference (1992), imagining a world where people with mental retardation and other cognitive impairments could receive types of training that had never before been possible. Among ideas shared at that conference were ways to provide situational training in safe environments for community living skills, and games that would teach social skills - both in ways that have never been possible in the "real" world. A year later, at the First International Virtual Reality and Persons with Disabilities Conference (1993), I presented a paper that discussed the great deal of speculation concerning the feasibility of using virtual reality applications in educational settings, and especially with students who were receiving special education services. At that time, the military, entertainment, medical, chemistry, architecture and interior design industries had already found applications of this new technology that enhanced training and production (Darrow & Powers, 1993). Applications of VR have continued to find utility in other industries. Higher education has begun to use VR technology to deliver various types of curriculum. An "Open University" system in Great Britain uses "video tunneling" for interactive distance education (Burd, 1994; Wilson, 1992; Anderson, 1991). Virtual reality has been used to assist acrophobes in overcoming fear of heights, to present legal evidence in support of a lawsuit, and even to store top secret CIA files (Stephenson v. Honda, 1992; Waller, 1995; Whole Life Update, 1995). Exploration of the use of VR technology for persons with a variety of disabilities has continued, and many applications have been put into practice. While a great deal of discussion continues regarding the promising future of using this technology with persons with mental retardation and other cognitive impairments (Vanderheiden & Mendenhall, 1993; Middleton, 1992), research on actual VR applications for this population have been disappointingly limited. The following section summarizes some recent developments in research on virtual reality, cognitive disabilities and learning that point to a need for development of new applications based on developer/educator collaboration in addressing unique learning characteristics.

II. Applications of Virtual Reality to Disabilities It is almost impossible to keep up with all of the VR applications being developed for persons with disabilities. A search of the currently published literature resulted in the summary that follows. Unfortunately, this list can only report on those applications that have been written up and published. Others are currently in progress. For the sake of organization and easy reference, they have been organized here by disability category and purpose. A. Physical Disabilities accessibility: The Movement Analysis System (Greenleaf, 1992); the Electromyogram for Man-Machine Interface for musical performance (1993); and the Dart Target System (Tivona & Young, 1993). environmental control: The Gesture Control System (Greenleaf, 1992). medical care enhancement: BioMuse (Knapp & Lusted, 1992; Knapp, 1993) B. Hearing Impairments improved communication: GloveTalker (Greenleaf, 1992); and the Sign Language Recognition System (SLARTI) (Vamplew & Adams, 1992). C. Vision Impairments MOBILITY: Personal Guidance Systems (Loomis, Bolledge, & Klatzky, 1993). IMPROVED COMMUNICATION: The Tactile Braille Keyboard Cursor- Control Interface (Johnson, 1993). D. Dual Sensory-Impairments COMMUNICATION: Dexter (Gilden & Smallridge, 1993). E. Severe Emotional Disturbance BEHAVIOR: Confllict Resolution Games (Oliver & Rothman, 1993). F. Cognitive Impairments CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment (Browning, 1993); CRIS-MAN (Cabanyes, 1992) (*Both are generally suggested for use with all disability categories, but there has been no specific research on cognitive impairment application.)

III. Virtual Reality and Learning: Teaching Approaches Well Suited to Persons with Cognitive Impairments A surprising number of research projects exploring applications of VR to K-12 education have appeared. Ingenuity and innovation have all but replaced prior speculations as to the infeasibility of VR in schools due to fears, costs, accessibility, and so forth. In a 1992 report to the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), Woodward predicted that VR would find its way into K-12 environments within 5 to 10 years. Three years later, his prediction is well on its way to being realized. In addressing the cost and availability obstacles, a Virtual Reality Roving Vehicle (VRRV) is already being used to assess learning in immersive VR environments in public schools, and to provide experience in such environments for school children (Rose, 1995). Virtual reality laboratories are finding support from local industry, and one training project that uses VR to learn about safe building design has even begun to take on commissioned projects (Aldridge, 1995). It is repeatedly suggested that educators begin to take a proactive, planning stance in the growth of this important new technology, rather than the reactive stance many have taken with other educational technology developments up until now. If educators want VR to meet learning needs, especially of those students who have unusual learning needs, they must play an active role in development of applications, offering to developers their unique understanding of learning styles and good teaching practices (Powers & Darrow, 1994). Some of the most commonly encountered learning needs of persons with cognitive impairments include: control over environment; self-pacing; repetition; ability to see or feel items or processes in concrete terms (difficulty with abstract concepts); safe training scenarios for potentially dangerous or humiliating work, social or daily living tasks; motivation; and repeated successes. Some selected findings that particularly address these learning needs are summarized below. The list should be perused keeping in mind that the focus in developing teaching applications ought to remain not on the technology, but on the needs of learners.

MOTIVATION: A number of researchers find that use of VR in training is extremely motivating to students, especially when they are involved in shaping the training, and when they perceive the technology as "fun" to use (Pantelidis, 1995; Bricken & Byrne, 1993, Osberg, 1992). CONCRETE TRAINING, REPETITION, SELF-TIMING: Pantelidis (1995) points out the ability of VR to make the abstract more concrete by providing close- up or distant views of processes not available in the real world. She also points out the flexibility with which VR can be used in repetition and self-pacing. Middleton (1992) points out how VR can make abstract items concrete and visible in a virtual environment in ways never before possible in training. For example, Vanderheiden and Mendenhall (1993) suggest the use of graphics within a task to illustrate steps rather than words, as in a step by step virtual cookbook that requires no reading.

CONTROL OVE ENVIRONMENT, SUCCESS: Bricken (1993) points out that the ability of VR to provide perceptual expansion, creative construction and unique social interactivity makes it fulfill teaching functions suggested by theorists as best teaching practices for over thirty years. Flexibility, ability to support a feeling of presence, the control the user has over virtual environments, and the physical feedback a user can experience are particularly important for persons with disabilities. Work, social and daily living skills training might be carried out in controlled, virtual settings, that neither humiliate, nor are dangerous to the user to practice, as the same training scenarios might be in real life. A "scaffolding" training process has even been suggested so that persons may experience high levels of success in a safe environment, and then have assistance with transfer of the information to more realistic settings (Pantelidis, 1995; Middleton, 1992). Rose's (1995) research also suggests potential for VR applications for supporting problem solving techniques such as concept mapping, various metacognitive strategies, cooperative learning, interviewing, and reciprocal teaching. Potential problems cited for using this technology for training with this population include difficulty with transfer and generalization of knowledge, the possibility of preference of virtual environments over real ones, inability to discriminate between real and unreal rules or terms, and potential fostering and teaching of negative values (Osberg, 1992). Research is currenly underway to assess the strengths and weaknesses of VR as a teaching tool, as it relates to what has been learned in the past about learning and cognition (Rose, 1995). IV. Cognitive Impairments: The Step Child of the Disability Community? Given the preceding discussions of characteristics of VR and learning needs of persons with cognitive impairments, it is natural to assume that this technology and population are ideally suited to one another. Nevertheless, although much attention has been placed on the use of VR for other types of disabilities, development for this population is somewhere between scarce and nonexistent. Some of the history of the disability rights movements might help to explain this trend. There have been a number of movements within the disability community in which persons with cognitive impairments have come last in receiving attention. For example, although Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1973 allowed Vocational Rehabilitation efforts to assist persons with disabilities who were non veterans in obtaining employment, until just a few years ago, persons with mental retardation did not receive services from Vocational Rehabilitation unless they could first prove their employability. More recent Amendments call for assisting persons with the most severe disabilities, whatever supports that may entail (Vocational Rehabilitation Amendments of 1986; 1992). Even the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 calls for concrete ways to create access for other areas of disability, while little concern is given to access for persons with cognitive impairments. Even the assistive technology movement of the last 20 years has been slow to develop both hardware and software that specifically addresses the needs of persons with cognitive disabilities (Church & Glennen, 1992). This slowness to include persons with cognitive impairments has also been seen in the Independent Living movement. Since the 1960's the Independent Living movement has continued to facilitate movement of most people with physical or sensory disabling conditions into normal housing situations within communities that are either independent, or interdependent. Unfortunately, a majority of the population with mental retardation is still living in mostly dependent environments. These tend to be segregated (from nondisabled persons), and highly regulated settings (as with group homes) or hospital type environments (like institutions or intermediate care facilities). Waiting lists continue to grow for placements in these "home-like" environments, and ironically, most people, were they given a choice, would prefer to live in a real home.

Finally, in the category of recreation and leisure, communities have made great strides in assisting persons with most types of disabling conditions in participating in normal community events. Unfortunately, most persons with mental retardation are relegated primarily to participation in "special" leisure and recreation programs and activities, "safely" segregated from the rest of the community. It can be speculated that some of this lack of attention is due to discrimination based upon stereotypical ideas concerning persons with mental retardation or brain injury, dating back to the Eugenics movement of the early 20th century or to medieval myths and early superstitions from long before. Ideas of separating the "bad stock", and protecting families from evil spirits seem to die hard. A number of the beliefs about persons with cognitive impairments that keep them from being served appear to be due to ignorance of the needs of this population. The core of this problem probably stems from the lack of self advocacy that comes from this very vulnerable population. Historically this population has had great difficulty making its needs and rights known in a powerful and visible way. School and adult placement practices continue to fuel negative stereotypes, which also affects funding patterns and practices. Attitudes of even caregivers and parents may become beaten down after years of abuses from schools and other service agencies that appear to be acceptable to the rest of the community. The cognitively impaired population is only recently beginning to make gains in the area of public attitude. The community concerned with virtual reality and persons who have disabilities have an opportunity to break this chain of stereotypes and resulting discrimination. To do so, developers of applications and service providers for this population must educate each other, and then take the initiative to work together to develop and test appropriate applications of this exciting technology.


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