1999 Conference Proceedings

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Jayne Pivik
Joan McComas
Marc Laflamme
The Rehabilitation Sciences Virtual Reality Lab
University of Ottawa, Canada;

Ian Macfarlane
Computing Technology Lab, Nortel Canada

The purpose of the Disability Awareness Virtual Reality Project is to develop and test a desktop virtual reality (VR) program that provides disability awareness information for school children without disabilities, and promotes the capabilities of children with physical disabilities. The specific aims of this project include:

  1. developing and testing a unique tool for disability awareness using virtual reality technology;
  2. utilizing a collaborative research approach where children who have disabilities and their parents are "the expert consultants" in the development, testing, and follow-up of this tool;
  3. to utilize a "problem-solving" approach where children using the program are "investigators" searching a school setting for physical barriers and constraints that impede a student that uses a wheelchair; and,
  4. to make this program widely available by submitting it to an educational networking organization linking classrooms nationally via the Internet.

Brief Rationale

Routinely, children with disabilites are integrated into public school systems. How well a child with a disability fits into this environment is in large part influenced by the attitudes and behaviors of their peers (Bender, 1980; Leyser et al., 1986). Research has shown that educational integration can have a negative impact, with the disabled child being subjected to rejection and stereotyping (Gottlieb, 1974; Gottlieb et al., 1974) or covert and overt bullying (Llewellyn, 1995) by their non-disabled peers. Our goal is to develop a program which can be used to circumvent the stigmatization of children with disabilities, and thus influence the psychosocial impact of childhood disability by increasing positive attitudes and knowledge not only of difficulties but also capabilities. New knowledge expected from this project includes: determining the effectiveness of VR for increasing positive attitudes toward children with disabilities and knowledge about the impact of environmental and attitudinal barriers, examining the effect of using a problem solving approach for disability awareness, and ascertaining if the process of involvement positively impacts on the self-esteem of children with disabilities.


There are three main phases to this project:
  1. the identification of the barriers/constraints faced by children with disabilities in a school setting;
  2. the development of the VR software; and
  3. the application and testing of the tool.

In Phase 1, physical and attitudinal barriers in different school settings were identified by children with mobility difficulties (our expert consultants) and their parents, using a series of focus group meetings. Fifteen children between the ages of 9 and 15 years identified the barriers to full inclusion in school, and recommended solutions to these barriers. These data were analysed using qualitative methods, specifically, thematic and content analysis. The following categories describe the identified barriers:

  1. the physical environment (eg., hallways and doorways too narrow);
  2. intentional attitudinal barriers (eg., isolation, bullying, intentional emotional or physical harm);
  3. unintentional attitudinal barriers (eg., lack of knowledge, understanding or awareness); and,
  4. limitations inherent to the physical disability (eg., difficulty with manual dexterity). The barriers were then combined in a cohesive manner and applied as a storyboard for the software development.

In Phase II, Ian Mcfarlane from Nortel Canada, our computer development partner, used the storyboard to develop a script for the software program. The virtual environment is an elementary grade school consisting of an outside entrance, a foyer, a classroom, a library, two bathrooms (one inaccessible), and a gym.

The initial display of the virtual environment is of the user sitting in a "virtual wheelchair". The user is told that he/she is a student using a wheelchair and has the task of identifying accessibility barriers in the virtual school. Examples of the types of barriers include stairs, curbs, and doors that are difficult to open, objects that are too high to reach and attitudinal barriers such as inappropriate expectations, actions, and comments. To increase motivation, the user is given points for correctly identifying barriers.

The virtual environment is constructed using a number of interconnected VRML worlds and a combination of a heads up display, proximity sensors and scripts to gather experimental data. Audio clips are used to introduce a number of attitudinal barriers. Since one of the goals of the project includes the release of the program on the Internet, particular emphasis will be given to performance issues, since the computers that are available in schools are typically not the highest performing models. Within the environment will be hot spots to access web pages of the expert consultants. These web pages will allow the children with disabilities the opportunity to supply biographical information, express their likes/dislikes and provide a forum for disability awareness information.

The developed software will be beta tested with children without disabilities as well as our expert consultants to ensure its reliability and content validity. Then, to assess the impact of this program on knowledge of and attitudes toward children with disabilities, at least four classrooms of grade 5-6 (N=120) students will be asked to participate in the evaluation phase of this project. Two classrooms will be given the VR program and two given a computerized program similar in length but not concerned with disability awareness. All children will be asked to complete an attitude scale (Chedoke-McMaster Attitudes Toward Children with Handicaps, CATCH scale, Rosenbaum, Armstrong & King, 1986) and a knowledge scale about disability (Children's Knowledge about Handicapped Persons Scale, Hazzard, 1981), before and after using the disability awareness software. As well, The Piers-Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale (Piers and Harris, 1969) will evaluate the impact of the "expert involvement" on the self-esteem of the children with disabilities.

The quantitative data (attitudes, knowledge and self-esteem) will be examined using analysis of co-variance (group X time) after ensuring no differences exist between groups related to gender or amount of contact and, controlling for initial scores. These results will indicate the impact of the virtual reality program on knowledge and attitudes toward peers with a disability. Implications for the use of virtual reality technology to teach disability awareness will be discussed.


Bender, L.F. (1980). Attitudes toward disabled people. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 22, 427-428.

Gottlieb, J. (1974) Attitudes toward retarded children: Effects of labelling and academic performance. American Journal of Mental Defiency, 78, 15-19.

Gottlieb, J., Cohen, L., & Goldstein, L. (1974). Social contact and personal adjustment as variables relating to attitudes toward EMR children. Training School Bulletin, 71, 9-16.

Hazzard, A. (1983). Children's Experience with Knowledge of, and Attitudes toward Disabled Persons. Journal of Special Education, 17 (2), 131-139.

Leyser, Y., Cumblad, C., & Strickman, D. (1986). Direct intervention to modify attitudes toward the handicapped by community volunteers: The learning about handicaps programme. Educational Review, 38 (3), 229-236.

Llewellyn, A. (1995). The abuse of children with physical disabilities in mainstream schooling. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 37, 740-743.

Rosenbaum, P.L., Armstrong , R., W., & King, S.M. (1986). Children's attitudes toward disabled peers: A self-report measure. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 11, 517-530.

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