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How Can VR Technology Help Disabled People Like Me?

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.” This is the opening line of the book ‘The Road Less Traveled‘ by Scott Peck. When I first read this back in my senior year in high school, I felt a great relief in my heart. Sometimes we forget that everyone out is having their own battle.

At that point in my life, it was essential for me to embrace and remember this fact. A few months apart from that day, my high school friends would each find their professional and personal way in life. On the other hand, I was on the brink of depression because I assumed my disability-related barriers are impossible to overcome.

When I was a little baby, my parents were told that I wouldn’t be able to walk on my own. I was born with a type of muscular dystrophy, which meant I wouldn’t be able to stand up and walk on my own. I’ve gone from one doctor to the other in my life, and I know a lot about this disease, but this is not the point here. Therefore I won’t go into detail.

I had a relatively happy childhood, and I owe a lot to my dear parents for this. But as I grew older, I felt different from the rest, and that caused depression. At the end of high school, I had a big mental downgrade to the point I was assigned for a six-month-long anti-depression therapy course.

In 2016 quite occasionally, I came across this fancy Virtual Reality video. I was impressed. The technology was officially introduced a few years ago (in 2010, I think), but it was my first time watching it. This first strong impression led me to a few weeks of persistent online research about this technology. My interest in it intensified, especially when I read about its potential application in helping disabled people like me.

I knew that if I helped myself, it would do a world of good for my mental health, quality of my life and give a hand to other disabled people facing the same struggles. Then I finally decided to attend a sort of pre-university course in this field to gain a little professional expertise and be able to help afterwards.

My goal is to provide other disabled people with relevant information that would help them live, to a great extent, a barrier-free professional and personal life. I want to encourage them to learn about Virtual Reality technology and discover ways to help them.

How Can Virtual Reality Help Disabled Students?

Equality is something education must stand for. Our schools have made great progress in this aspect. Anyway, there’s more to be done. Disabled students still face a lot of different problems apart from a customized infrastructure or similar. I know this from my very own experience in school.

So the question is: Can Virtual Reality Technology play a role in tackling this problem? Yes, it can! On a major scale and terms, Virtual Reality can provide disabled students with:

  • Customization
  • Inclusion
  • Participation

These are three branches of the same tree, so to say, they complement each other in this structure.
Customization: Disabled students may have specific needs due to their physical impairments. Let say a student has a partial eyesight loss, and in a normal class setting, a clear vision of the student is essential for him to understand the material. There are VR goggles and additional gears that enable these students to see clearly. This brings us then to the second point.

Participation: When the student knows what is being discussed in the class from our last example, and they can engage all their senses in the learning process; therefore, they can participate in discussions. This is an essential element for everyone to excel in school.

Inclusion: It is of great importance for a disabled student to feel part of the learning process. When their needs are met, and they can participate equally, then, of course, this is easily achieved.

Many classes, especially those held in laboratories, require certain body movements to perform an experiment. I had this problem as a high school student. I would never able to conduct an experiment on my own because sometimes I was supposed to be standing on my own feet or move in a certain way which I couldn’t.

So I was only learning about it from what I saw other students were doing. I knew what was going on, but I didn’t felt part of it. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement which is a massive turn-off for disabled students in career decisions.

VR Technology For Students With Sight Impairments

Globally the number of people suffering from any sight impairment is growing at a worrying pace. According to the WHO stats, more than 250 million people worldwide have sight problems. Innovations in VR technology are being used in helping many of them, including those who follow their education dreams.

For example, a London-based startup company developed a VR headset a few years ago that helps people with sight impairments restore their sight almost to normal levels. Essentially what their innovative device does is that it takes a real-time, high-quality image of reality, and then it projects its augmented form to the part of your retina that is still working.

SightPlus is designed in that way so you can adjust it to the level of sight improvement you need through a remote control system. Even the big company Samsung has built a new VR headset for people with sight issues. Their product is called Relumino. This is based on the same principles to assist people with sight impairments by making blurry images clearer and adjusting the contrast of colours accordingly.

VR Technology For People Using A Wheelchair

Mobility is the main problem for wheelchair users. I personally used a wheelchair my whole life, so I learned to navigate around way earlier. But some people start using a wheelchair at a certain age because they had an accident or their initial neurovascular or orthopaedic disease progressed in time. They find it extremely difficult to move around, and I can understand that. Even worse, in most cases, they have to deal with this problem all alone without any help coming through.

VR technology is already helping these people by simulating a virtual situation where they have to cross a road or navigate in the building of a school. In such a way, the person can learn to move as freely as possible and, more importantly, independently.

VR simulations help people undergoing therapies to walk again too. What doctors nowadays do is not asking their patients to push themselves to make a few days in each session, but they simulate a walking experience with the help of a VR headset. VR experts claim that this has a strong base in medicine, more specifically neuroscience. They say that a simulated walking experience can trigger a patient’s brain to adapt faster to new motoric skills.

Further on, VR technology can help wheelchair users experience something they could experience otherwise. There are already many VR sets created to simulate a tennis game, go hiking, tours around cities and museums, and so on. And to all these activities, wheelchair users can also have access to thanks to Virtual Reality technology.

Entertainment And VR

Disabled people deal with a lot of mental stress. It’s important for them to entertain and feel no barrier to engaging in exciting activities. Here’s where VR technology comes into play.

I, for example, always loved to hike, but I couldn’t because of my wheelchair. In a London workshop, I tried a VR set that simulated walking on stones at the top of the mountain. It felt so real, and I was happy I could experience hiking.

VR is also a perfect opportunity to have fun for people who aren’t disabled. For example, Google offers an outstanding immersive app called Google Expeditions. As you can guess from the name, it can take on a dreamlike expedition, for example, on Mars.

VR Accessibility For Disabled Students

VR technology is nothing new, but it is still not the norm, so to say. The main problem related to it is certainly its cost. Although they’ve been around for quite a while, their price tag is high and, for many, just another luxurious item they cannot afford. For example, a virtual reality headset may have a price of up to 1,400 euros which is surely high for most of us.

There are actually lots of free-to-use VR apps and softwares, but they’re bonded to a narrow spectrum of disability-related needs. For example, people who have a relatively low level of vision loss may use Chromecast to project something on a TV display so they can read and see clearly from a certain distance instead of holding a device inches apart from the eye.

Anyway, the day when VR will be accessible for almost all is not too far. Until then, what can disabled people do? First and foremost, I encourage them to speak up for their specific needs. I didn’t comfortable asking school officials to adjust something in the regular class setting only because I wanted to avoid attracting attention and feeling anxious afterwards. That was wrong, and I don’t want others to make this mistake.

Second, reach out to VR agencies: When I first got to know what potential has this technology to change my life, I checked out for technology groups in my area with VR gears at their disposal, and I reached for them. In this way, I had the opportunity to experience VR from close and feeling for real how it could affect my life quality. Eventually, I decided to seek a career path in this area, but I don’t necessarily suggest others like me do the same. I want you to take advantage of this technology and use it to benefit every walk you take in this life.

Future Prospects

Nobody knows for sure what this technology it’s going to provide us with in the future. However, there are strong reasons to be excited about it. Big role players in this industry seem to be firmly determined to widen this technology’s application, especially in medicine.

In years to come, we may see doctors who prescribe VR headsets, and this just unbelievable to think about it. The idea of placing yourself in a future situation that feels profoundly immersive has a massive potential to reveal a lot about our reaction mechanisms which then can help us prepare better for them.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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