Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mentors Collaborate to Support Newcomers

 Virtual worlds can offer people from every background opportunities to work together to improve life for others. Over at Virtual Ability Island in Second Life®, the White Tiger Mentors, one of the oldest in-world mentoring groups in Second Life®, recently collaborated with the VAI Mentors from Virtual Ability, Inc. to learn more about supporting virtual world members with disabilities. Longtime VAI Mentor iSkye Silverweb led the first of a series of training sessions supporting mentors for increased success.

Mentors, like those in both White Tiger Mentors and VAI Mentors, are specially trained to work with newcomers to virtual worlds. They patiently teach basic skills and help newcomers navigate, communicate, and participate in the three-dimensional interactive social environment. For many mentors, encountering a newcomer who self-identifies as having a disability or mentions using assistive technology can feel challenging. The Virtual DisAbility: Awareness for Mentors collaborative training helps deepen mentors’ skills and knowledge.

Awareness is a critical first skill. So is a basic understanding of assistive technology and universal design relative to virtual world participation. After input and discussion, the group participated in a thorough walk-through of the award-winning Orientation Path designed by Virtual Ability, Inc. The Orientation Path, which is a model of universal design for learning, engages newcomers in “learning by doing,” and carefully builds abilities needed for in-world success. Mentors can assist, or supplement, the learning by providing one-on-one help.

What was the key learning for this group of experienced mentors? “It’s good to know we’re not alone in this,” noted White Tiger Mentor Ravena DeCuir. Claudius Quintus agreed. “Muito importante sua aula!” (Very important lessons!) Brock Levee added, “The three most important things in helping anyone are caring, understanding what they need, and taking action.” 

This series of trainings models all three of those, and participants agreed that continuing mutual support will benefit all. For more information, please contact iSkye Silverweb within Second Life®, or contact Virtual Ability, Inc. 

Virtual Ability, Inc. is a non-profit corporation based in Colorado, USA. Our mission is to enable people with a wide range of disabilities by providing a supporting environment for them to enter and thrive in online virtual worlds like Second Life®. Visit

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Movement without limitations: dance comes from your soul… from who you are.

 Don Setzer, the avatar of Alex Spitzer, stood before an audience recently at one of Virtual Ability, Inc.’s islands in the virtual world of Second Life®. As his avatar shifted from foot to foot, stretching muscles and nodding, he spoke to the audience gathered to learn about a gifted professional dancer who also happens to be a wheelchair user. Like all of the presentations offered at Virtual Ability, this one really made participants think.

Alex Spitzer is a professional dancer and choreographer who has been recognized nationally and internationally. He is the Artistic Director of the Spitzer Dance Company ( and he has a long list of “firsts.” As the first male dancer to enter the undergraduate program in dance at Texas Women’s University, Alex is also the first dancer in a wheelchair to receive a four year degree in dance not only in the US, but in the world.

For Alex, as for many dancers, dance is an art and a means of expression that “should be available to all people.” Dance and choreography is an expression of self through movement. “Dance comes from the heart inside, expressing yourself through movement of the body,” he notes on his website. “Whatever movement you can do can be dance.”

Alex notes that his training and his dancing have been very similar to that of any other professional dancer. He and his instructors creatively adapted instruction and approach where necessary, focusing on body movement, not just the movements of his powerchair. His dance and choreography express every emotion. His works, some which are pictured in an exhibit showing starting in March in the art gallery on Virtual Ability’s Cape Able, include dancers with a wide variety of abilities.

Since his early interest in dance, Alex has aspired to “just be a dancer, like anyone else,” and for people to see him as a dancer, not as a disabled dancer or a wheelchair dancer. He reminds us, in his art form, as he did in his recent Second Life® presentation, that one can dance even when one’s body has limitations. Professional dance calls forth the gift and talent of the artist, and hones it with training, discipline, study, and determination.

Whether one dances professionally on stages around the world, as Alex Spitzer does, or on a “dance ball” in one’s own Second Life® apartment, dance expresses the meanings of the heart.

What does your heart say?

Virtual Ability, Inc. is a non-profit corporation based in Colorado, USA. Our mission is to enable people with a wide range of disabilities by providing a supporting environment for them to enter and thrive in online virtual worlds like Second Life®. Visit

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Guest Writer: Counseling and Virtual Service Delivery: 2014 Mental Healthy Symposium

Virtual Ability, Inc. welcomes guest blogger Nicole Matyas, OTS, as she shares her thoughts about the session entitled “The Role of Counseling in Quality of Life and How Counselors are Exploring Virtual Service Delivery,” presented by Christine Karper, Ph.D. and Michelle Stone, B.S. Psychology, both from the College of Social Sciences, University of Phoenix, during the 2014 Mental Health Symposium sponsored by Virtual Ability, Inc. in Second Life®. Ms. Matyas (SL name nicki416) is a Thomas Jefferson University student in the Department of Occupational Therapy. The following represents Ms. Matyas’s opinions and insights and we appreciate her sharing them.

This lecture addressed how the emerging use of technology in providing human services is implemented, specifically in counseling through the use of virtual worlds. Karper and Stone opened their discussion by reviewing the traditional measures by which counselors typically treat their patients by utilizing the “disease approach” as a basis for treatment. Counselors tend to serve as “pathologizers” in treating their patients, by being trained to hone in on the negative symptoms that inhibit the daily functioning of individuals with mental illnesses. They are constantly looking to merely reduce distress and illuminate what is wrong. However, by shifting to the up and coming “well-being-focused” approach, counselors may execute a larger focus on patients’ strengths in addition to repairing deficits.
Dr. Christine Karper, Ph.D. presented using her avatar "Storm"

According to American psychologist and author Dr. Martin Seligman, this more optimistic, well-rounded approach is deemed as “positive psychology.” Positive psychology focuses on the whole person, where happiness is understood in relation to goodness and meaningfulness. Individuals may reach this goal by engaging in more activities that evoke positive emotions and practicing skills that will help to further develop their strengths. It is the role of counselors to educate their clients about strategies that can be used to incorporate their interests and preferences into their daily routines as a means of improving their symptomology and obtaining an overall sense of well being.

Karper and Stone specifically mention the significance of the flow experience, in which individuals are so immersed in an activity that they lose track of time due to the perfect fit between their abilities and the challenge of the activity at hand. This flow experience provides individuals with a sense of meaning and larger purpose. This sense of meaning has the strongest effect on individuals' level of satisfaction with their lives and encompasses so much more than what the traditional symptom-reduction approach would.  Rather, this approach emphasizes talent and improvement in overall quality of life.

Moving on to actual interventions, Karper and Stone introduced a subgroup of the American Counseling Association (ACA), the Cyber Task Force, and described how that task force is working to make positive changes in service delivery by encouraging the use of technology. Resources include providing support to those counselors and educators who wish to include technology in implementation of practice. This group also has a Code of Ethics to aid in legal and ethical issues faced by practitioners.

Ms. Stone presented using her avatar Bellastormi Constantine.
The benefits of technology include enhancing communication, learning, and increasing the ease with which we do things. The task force has also developed a standard of competencies and identified practical implications of technology in counseling. To further develop the field of counseling, virtual worlds can be used for hosting support groups in a non-threatening environments as well as in providing the immersive, flow-like experience without the negative repercussions of the real world. Virtual worlds also promote acquisition of various skill sets that may be generalized to real world situations.

A personal anecdote by a member of the audience was then shared that I found quite interesting, and that was that a simple adaptation of technology allowed an individual with psychosis to reduce his sense of stigmatization. This was by wearing a blue tooth device in the community as a means of compensating for verbally responding to the voices in his head. His behavior suddenly became normalized, demonstrating that simple implementations of technology such as this really can help!

Between 45 and 65 people attended each of seven presentations.
The part of this lecture that really stood out to me was the acknowledgement of the importance of the flow-like experience. As occupational therapy students, we are constantly challenged to strive for providing opportunities for our clients to experience flow. If clients become so immersed in meaningful activities that they lose track of time and obtain a sense of complete mastery over a skill, perceived sense of increased self-efficacy is reached, leading to overall increased levels of satisfaction and quality of life. As an occupational therapist in training, I found this lecture to be extremely interesting and also reflective of the direction in which all human services are moving, including advancing to the use of more advanced technologies, such as in virtual environments.

Nicole Matyas, OTS
Thomas Jefferson University

Philadelphia, PA

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Guest Writer: Helping Veterans through Virtual Worlds Support: 2014 Mental Health Symposium

Avatar picture closeup of Celene Highwater
Virtual Ability, Inc. welcomes guest blogger CeleneHighwater as she shares her thoughts about the session entitled “A Healing Space built with Veterans in Mind: Virtual Worlds and Psychological Health,” presented by Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Ph.D., during the 2014 Mental Health Symposium sponsored by Virtual Ability, Inc. in Second Life®.  The following represents CeleneHighwater's opinions and insights and we appreciate her sharing them.

The “Coming Home” project as Dr. Morie called it, is a great idea for helping veterans affected by the trauma of war. It gives them a chance to deal with their mental health challenges in the privacy and comfort of their home in a convenient and low-stress environment.

And since obtaining first a proper diagnosis, then effective treatment, can be difficult in the health care system of today, to me Second Life serves as the perfect alternative.

Chicoma Island, where the veteran treatment center is based, offers a great example of technological advancement and an example of the calming and mental benefits that Second Life can have on those suffering from illnesses such as PTSD.

One thing that was created to help reduce stress levels of participants was a HUD that monitored regular deep-breathing. The jogging track that was created utilized this HUD and the users’ normal breathing to make the avatar jog. The jog took roughly ten minutes to complete and Dr. Morie said that studies showed that the ten minutes of normal breathing had health benefits.

Another thing she discussed that really captured my interest was the idea to have an on-going treatment center in Second Life for soldiers wishing to stay on active duty. Personally, I love the idea that when stressed or in need of counseling, a soldier could log on to Second Life and find the help that he/she needs. I think this approach could work for those in the civilian sector who also suffer from the effects of severe trauma and I hope that funding returns so this project can be continued.

Member of Virtual Ability group in Second Life®

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Guest Writer: Employment Equality: 2014 Mental Health Symposium

Virtual Ability, Inc. welcomes guest blogger Nicole Matyas, OTS, as she shares her thoughts about the session entitled “Employment Equality Through Accommodation and Self-Advocacy,” presented by Teresa Goddard, Senior Consultant with the Job Accommodation Network at West Virginia University, during the 2014 Mental Health Symposium sponsored by Virtual Ability, Inc. in Second Life®. Ms. Matyas (SL name nicki416) is a Thomas Jefferson University student in the Department of Occupational Therapy. The following represents Ms. Matyas’s opinions and insights and we appreciate her sharing them.

This lecture addressed how individuals with disabilities may successfully request workplace changes and how, in response to said requests, employers may provide effective accommodations for their employees.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN)( ) is a cost-free resource that provides individuals with the aid they may need in addressing their rights as employees as well as any questions they have pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. The recurring theme evident throughout this presentation was encouraging individuals with disabilities to advocate for themselves in seeking out accommodations that would facilitate optimal functioning in the workplace as well as obtaining equal access to the benefits and privileges of employment.

Some examples that were given as ways that employers may provide reasonable accommodations to those employees that qualify include changing the physical environment and modifying the way that things are typically done, resulting in equal employment opportunities for all. Specifically, this may present as modifying schedules, restricting standards of performance, or promoting accessibility to various resources.

Though a large portion of this process is dependent on the employer and his/her compliance with ADA standards, it is equally the individual’s responsibility to self-advocate and refrain from expecting their employer to merely “read their mind.” Rather, individuals must be knowledgeable about their rights as a potential employee and be sure to sufficiently provide their employers with what their specific limitations and needs are, and how certain adaptations are necessary and will help them to be more productive in the workplace. Something to consider is to include the individual’s medical provider in the employee-employer interaction in seeking accommodations, as a means of giving the employer a better understanding of the underlying medical condition and what the rationale is for certain limitations and problems.

Throughout the lecture, Teresa Goddard provided real-life examples of past JAN cases, addressing steps for requesting accommodations and even providing the audience with additional links and articles, such as for helping patients with medical conditions write effective accommodation request letters. Interestingly enough, Teresa Goddard specifically mentioned the role of occupational therapists and other health care professionals in helping to make work environments more conducive to individuals’ performance by utilizing their familiarity with assistive technology and thus making interactions with employers run more smoothly. This portion of the lecture especially stood out to me in that I could relate to understanding the skill set that occupational therapists bring to the table in consulting with individuals with disabilities in seeking employment.

What many employers may fail to recognize or tend to misconstrue is the cost of accommodations. In fact, more often than not, it is more cost-efficient to provide employees with disabilities with the accommodations they need, such as a communication device, because it will result in a more productive work day, and ultimately benefit the company as a whole. As Teresa Goddard claimed in her lecture, “The right equipment can make all the difference!”

Another example that Teresa Goddard provided was the role of ergonomics; that is, adapting the physical environment in order to make it conducive to the individual’s optimal functioning. It is important to note that ergonomic adaptations are not associated with changing the individual’s behavior, but rather, addressing barriers in the environment that may impede performance. These could include addressing the needs of an employee with progressing arthritis, depression, and fatigability, and modifying his/her workspace to allow for energy conservation and increased productivity.

Lastly, Teresa Goddard emphasized the importance of monitoring the implementation of any and all adaptations. It is not sufficient to merely implement a change and move on. Rather, it is important to continue to monitor the progress, development, and success of the individual as a means of determining whether the adaptation was effective in helping the individual to achieve their goals and improve their performance in the workplace. This concept is similar to the notion of “client-centeredness,” a primary goal and value for the profession of occupational therapy, in which the individual needs, preferences, and concerns of each client as an individual being should be recognized and considered before, during, and after implementation of any interventions.

Conclusively, the ongoing theme throughout this lecture was to ensure that the individual’s voice is being heard, which is both the responsibility of the individual themselves as well as their employer, and the need to be clear on limitations and needs, performance standards and goals, and how reasonable accommodations will ultimately result in success in the workplace. This session ended with an extensive “Q&A” between Teresa Goddard and members of the audience pertaining to their own personal experiences with employment. I found my attendance at this lecture to be very valuable in that it allowed me to compare and apply my knowledge from what I’ve learned thus far in my occupational therapy program to what professionals and researchers as well as “real-life individuals” are dealing with regarding this topic of interest. I hope that individuals continue to advocate for themselves in this realm. The more widely recognized issues in the workplace become, the more progress can be made, and the more equal opportunity may be sought out for individuals with disabilities, who are just as deserving of rights to employment as are individuals who do not have a disability.

Nicole Matyas, OTS
Thomas Jefferson University
Philadelphia, PA