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Opening virtual doors

by Michèle Nardelli

The Honourable Bill Shorten to the left, Professor Peter Gerard (Editor of the Telecommunications Journal of Australia) to the immediate right of Denise Wood and Robert Morsillo from Telstra far right. Researcher and senior lecturer in the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages at UniSA, Dr Denise Wood, is opening virtual doors for people with disabilities. And her current research has just been awarded the prestigious $20,000 Telstra TJA Christopher Newell Prize for Telecommunications and Disability.

Dr Wood’s award-winning publication, Communication in virtual worlds through an accessible Web 2.0 Solution, is one outcome from an Australian Learning and Teaching Council supported project being conducted by a UniSA team in partnership with project leaders from Flinders, Edith Cowan, Monash, RMIT and Sydney Universities and the University of Sheffield in the UK, and programmers Charles Morris from Virtual Helping Hands and Darren Candler from Metadas Media.

Recognising the importance of Web 2.0 and 3D virtual worlds in delivering social and education opportunities for people with disabilities, Dr Wood and her team have been exploring the barriers to engaging with these new media.

“These technologies offer enormous potential to empower people who have often been marginalised so our objective is to provide greater accessibility for 3D learning environments for as many people as possible,” Dr Wood says.

“Our ethnographic studies and our research into the technologies now available have clearly identified the benefits of web 2.0 and 3D Virtual Worlds in building valuable social and education communities for people with disabilities.

“However we have also revealed that there is an urgent need for developers to address the identified challenges posed by such dynamic, media rich environments. What we have seen is that technological barriers to accessibility, may actually work to further disadvantage people with disabilities.”

Focusing their efforts on 3D worlds, the research team has developed Access Globe, an accessible open source viewer and a Web 2.0 enabled interface to virtual worlds.

The viewer and Web 2.0 site include specific features for use in virtual worlds that make them more accessible with disabilities - including enhanced accessibility menus, alternative to relying on the mouse to drive interaction and an audio notification system to help the visually impaired log in and follow online conversations.

Dr Wood says these technological solutions provide greater equity in accessing the collaborative, interactive and learning environments virtual worlds offer.

“Our research shows that there are very real emotional, social and educational benefits for people with disabilities in engaging with Web 2.0 and 3D virtual worlds,” she says.

“Innovations like Access Globe and our accessible Web 2.0 interface mean that people with disabilities will be better placed to benefit from the collaborative and experiential learning potentials of virtual worlds.”

The proceeds from the award will be used to extend research into technological solutions aimed at enhancing the social participation of people with disabilities.

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