Visiting the virtual world Second Life on the Internet provides entertainment for millions, but for a growing population of people with disabilities, the same digital world improves their quality of life, according to the authors of an article in the November/December 2010 issue of Rehabilitation Nursing, published by the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, Glenview, Ill.

"In the digital world of Second Life (SL), people with disabilities have a chance to experience life beyond the limitations of their disabilities," accordig to authors Stephanie Stewart, PhD RN, professor of nursing and director of nursing innovation at the College of Nursing, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI; Timothy A. Carey, BA, owner of Golden Fire Computer Productions, Appleton, WI; and Terri S. Hansen, MSN RN, academic staff member at the College of Nursing, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Virtual worldssuch as SL have 3-D layouts in which multiple users can interact and communicate with one another. SL is a free, online, computer-simulated environment where millions of real people are represented by avatars. A person may create an avatar that is similar in appearance and personality to him or herself or one that is entirely different. People with disabilities can choose whether to have their avatars exhibit their disabilities. Avatars can walk, fly, or teleport–instantly appear in another location on command—to thousands of locations and communicate with other real people from around the world through instant messaging or voice conversations.

"In virtual worlds, computer-simulated environments host avatars, which are digital representations of a specific person," the authors wrote. "The avatar can manipulate objects and participate in day-to-day activities that most people take for granted, such as walking, dancing, and communicating. SL provides benefits to people with disabilities such as information, socialization, and community membership. SL communities, groups, and activities help increase feelings of self-worth and empowerment."

Newcomers to this free, virtual world often experience a sense of community. There are numerous mentors who help new users navigate through the virtual world and introduce them to social and therapeutic opportunities.

"Nurses caring for patients in a rehabilitation setting can use SL as an enrichment tool to help disabled, chronically ill, and convalescing patients improve their overall quality of life and enhance their physical, emotional, and social adjustment," the authors wrote. "SL could become part of a rehabilitation plan for people with disabilities, enabling patients to learn more about their own conditions, health, and wellbeing, and resources available to enhance their quality of life."

According to the SL website, this 3-D virtual world is imagined, created, and owned by its residents. Linden Lab, the privately owned company founded in 1999 that created SL, has established a code of conduct, but residents are responsible for maintaining their own safety by using intuition and discretion to determine the extent or accuracy of their communication and level of interactions with others.

"Participation in support groups and communities of people who understand what they are going through improves their sense of self-worth and augments their adjustment and functional ability by providing opportunities for socialization, encouragement, friendships, and fun. In addition, people with disabilities who are unable to work in the real world may be able to find work or volunteer in SL. SL offers people with disabilities a chance to explore new worlds without the limitations of their disabilities, offering them hope and promoting a higher level of emotional functioning. There are unlimited possibilities for how SL can be used in the rehabilitation of patients," the authors concluded.

[Source: Association of Rehabilitation Nurses]