Sunday, September 15, 2013

In Focus: The Freedom Project and Virtual Ability

The Freedom Project…Art focused on Ability and Disability in the Modern Age

The Freedom Project..a new art theme at the UWA virtual campus in Second Life. The kickoff ceremony opened up at 7pm SLT SLT on September 1st at the UWA auditorium. The Freedom Project logo was designed by the brilliant Eliza Wierwight, who was among the attendees at the ceremony that night.
Jayjay Zifanwe started the opening ceremony for the Freedom Project; he was joined by Gentle Heron, Dianne Elton, and UWA curator FreeWee Ling.
Jayjay’s opening remarks were welcoming and very enthusiastic. “Greetings everyone and welcome to the University of Western Australia, or UWA ash she is known…I don’t think I have ever held a launch event before, aside from when UWA itself launched in Second Life in 2009, however this event is a really important one and we are having an event launch which isn’t what we have been doing with our recent art & film events.”

This event is co-organized by UWA, Virtual Ability, and Centre for ME/CFS and Other Invisible Illnesses. Gentle Heron is co-founder of Virtual Ability and the person I am interviewing in this blog article for UWA blog.

Gentle Heron up on stage at the Freedom Project opening ceremony

 How long has Virtual Ability been around? What is the goal of the organization?

GH: The SL Virtual Ability community has been inworld since 2007. Our community 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.

What typically goes on in the Peer support groups?

GH: Peer support groups vary widely! We have identified over 120 different ones in SL. Posters with information about them line the Path of Support, on Healthinfo Island. If there is such a thing as a “typical” peer support group, it offers information, assistance, encouragement and friendship (support) within a group of people who share certain characteristics (peers). Most peer support groups in SL have a single focus on a chronic illness or disabling condition. Virtual Ability is a cross-disability peer support community, with ¾ of our members having one or more disabling conditions (physical, mental, emotional, developmental, or sensory). The other ¼ of our members are parents, children, spouses, friends, caregivers, medical professionals, researchers, or others interested in disability issues.

How many sims does Virtual Ability own? What is the purpose of each one?

GH: Our two main public islands are Virtual Ability and Healthinfo Island. Virtual Ability hosts a public New Resident Orientation Center that is designed to meet the needs of many people with disabilities. But because it was built on the principles of Universal Design and the theory of andragogy, it works well for everyone. In fact, many professors bring their classes into Second Life through the Virtual Ability website ( ), since our orientation is award-winning and safe. Virtual Ability island also has a large accessible auditorium and a couple of classrooms.

Healthinfo Island is, as the name suggests, a place to access information about health and wellness. In addition to displays and exhibits on varied topics, the Path of Support shows peer support organizations in SL. We also have a Farmers Market and Herb Garden to encourage good nutrition, a Health and Wellness Pavilion to exercise in and learn healthful life skills, a Consumer Health Library with links to useful resources a cozy reading room where you can sit and think about all you’ve learned.

Our two residential islands are Cape Able and Cape Serenity. Cape Able hosts our art gallery, featuring artworks by artists with disabilities; Cape Serenity has our library of works by authors with disabilities, classic and contemporary. The art gallery and library are public; the residences are private.

We also have several islands related to project work that we’ve undertaken with universities.

Virtual Ability Main Sim

Who is the founder of Virtual Ability? How many seek help approximately each year? What is the trend…are more or less seeking help since the first year?

GH: I founded the group that eventually became Virtual Ability with a couple of online friends. We now number over 800 members in our community, and more continue to join every week. As the group grows, we can offer more activities for our members, reflecting the diversity of our community membership.

Gentle, what is your role in Virtual Ability? How did Virtual Ability help you? I understand that you have a disability yourself?

GH: I am the president of the RL nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability, Inc., which supports our work in Second Life as the Virtual Ability community.  I have multiple sclerosis and don’t get out of my house to work or volunteer or socialize as I once did. Being part of a virtual community fills so many of my social needs.

What is your education background and work experience from real life? How does your life experience help you at Virtual Ability? How has Virtual Ability improved your overall quality of life in either real life or second life?

GH: I am a former educator and education researcher, until I was sidelined by multiple sclerosis. It’s pretty obvious from how I plan and deliver presentations that I’m a former teacher. But I have gotten to take on other roles within Virtual Ability that probably would not have happened in my life outside the virtual world.

What do you enjoy most about working with others in the community? What do you dislike most from your time spent working with others and being in the community?
GH: I enjoy meeting people from all over the world, and perhaps offering them assistance or support if that is what they are seeking. What do I dislike? Would you believe there are people in SL who fake being disabled, or are here to prey on our need to socialize?

How can people help Virtual Ability to continue to help those who need it?

GH: Probably the best thing people can do to help Virtual Ability is to let others know about it. Our membership grows mainly by word of mouth.

Does Virtual Ability host yearly events?

GH: Yes in fact we have one of our annual professional conferences coming up Sept. 27/28. That one is the International Disability Rights Affirmation Conference (IDRAC). You can see a preliminary line-up of presenters here:  We also have an annual Mental Health Symposium in the spring.

Who approached you to help with the Freedom Project? How did you hear about it?

GH: I’ve known JayJay for a while in SL, and he approached me.

What is your hope about the Project?

GH: I suspect this will be a great way to showcase some of the positive side of SL. (The negative side promotes itself well enough already.) I think it’s a good way to show people with disabilities other options for them than sitting home or lying in bed staring at the walls.

What are you hoping to see or looking for in the art and machinima?

GH: I know I will be pleasantly surprised at the many ways people choose to portray “freedom.” I also know that this art is not virtual; it’s quite real, as are the messages being delivered through it.

To learn more about Virtual Ability and see the headquarters, the ride is here:

Coming interview with Dianne Elton. Stay tuned!

Have fun and enjoy the art!

- Victoria Lenoirre

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