Society has become increasingly aware of the need for accessibility in many realms. While frequently the focus is on physical space, such as promoting universal design in architecture, people are spending more and more time in video games and social virtual worlds such as Second Life. For our society to be truly inclusive of disabled people, we are morally obliged to attend to these virtual spaces as well. Specifically, I discuss two key aspects of inclusion: accessibility and representation.
Some may think this focus frivolous; why worry about what happens in virtual worlds and games? First, as Johan Huizinga recognized in Homo Ludens, humans have a need for play in our lives. Secondly, we are social beings. An increasing amount of play is taking place in digital worlds, and with the dwindling of physical third places, the same is true of social interaction. We have an ethical obligation to ensure that these virtual spaces are accessible to everyone.
Accessibility is only the first step to inclusion, however; representation is also key. Virtual spaces offer those with visible disabilities the chance to control their presentation to others in ways that are impossible in the physical world. Being able to choose whether and how to reveal one’s disability is empowering, particularly given social tendencies to reduce a person to nothing but their disability. Similarly, being able to engage in activities that are difficult in the physical world (perhaps for reasons of mobility or social anxiety) can be enjoyable. However, on the flip side of this coin, there is often no disabled representation in virtual worlds and video games at all, which can send the message that disabled people are unwelcome. Inclusion is thus more than mere accessibility; the manner in which disabled people are represented is also key.