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Degrees of Freedom: How virtual reality is giving disabled kids access to a new world

Degrees of Freedom

How virtual reality is giving disabled kids access to a new world

Many of us experience different degrees of freedom. The freedom to work where we want, live the way we please and take care of ourselves and others without a second thought. Freedom is something many of us take for granted. But for those living with a disability, freedom often feels out of reach.  

Virtual Reality (VR) helps provide freedom to differently-abled people in numerous ways, helping cross borders they could not cross on their own. It can serve as a great equalizer in education, training, socialization, and even good, plain fun. Virtual Reality strips participants of all their differences and limitations and allows them to learn and play in a safe, immersive environment.

Over the last few years, VR has developed rapidly, meeting the consumer demand for immersive, entertaining experiences. Some headsets offer a rotational three degrees of freedom. You can look around, tilt your head from side to side, and look up and down. Six degrees of freedom can do everything a three-degree headset can do, but you can also step forward, change your perspective or point of view, approach or retreat around things. Six degrees is the most lifelike and responsive to people’s movements.

A study done at the University of Ottawa found that there are many current uses of VR to help children of all abilities flourish and the results are promising.

1 – Custom Programs Meet a Variety of Needs

One of the biggest advantages of VR is its malleable content and options for customization. Developers are creating large amounts of content that can be tailor-made for different needs. According to the researches at the University of Ottawa, “The characteristics of the Virtual Experience can be modified to include or exclude a certain type of stimuli depending on the goal of the program.”  

So if a child is particularly bothered or distracted by too much sound or certain kinds of it, it can be removed. If a child wants to experience Times Square but is easily overwhelmed by the sound of crowds, cars, and sirens, those stimuli can effectively be removed, giving the child an experience free of distractions.  

2 – Improve Skill Enhancement and Training

Children need a safe place to grow, learn, and enhance their skills. Whether that’s learning how to navigate a grocery store, how to use a wheelchair, or how to drive, many special educators are using VR to offer a safe, controlled, distraction-free environment in which to learn, fail, and practice.  

For students with a disability, this becomes especially useful. Many parents, teachers, and guardians may feel uncomfortable practicing certain skills in the real world, with strangers and hard to predict variables interrupting learning time. But a VR headset gives kids the ability to practice without the discomfort of the unknown.

Most importantly, researchers noticed, skills learned in the virtual space translate successfully to the real world. General life skills, such as crossing the street, using public transportation, and going to the post office can all be simulated and practiced, with variations and emergency situations projected and prepared for. This kind of learning helps give kids a boost of confidence and freedom when tackling the real world, without the fear of failing or being embarrassed in front of others.

One program for disabled students created a virtual science laboratory, allowing students cerebral palsy to occupy the specially adapted interface and work within the lab.  

Aside from being a helpful training and rehabilitative tool, it can also help keep the cognitive skills sharp and improve attention, memory, and spatial skills. This can be restorative or preventative, allowing children to rebuild after trauma or prevent further atrophy. Exercising the brain through memory games, attention control, and continued learning helps give students control over their developing brain.

3 – Enhance Social Participation and Quality of Life

Social interaction in a child’s life is extremely valuable. It helps build well-being and increases the quality of life. Having friends, playing games, and laughing grows social awareness and self-confidence. No child should be deprived of these opportunities. For hospitalized or disabled children, VR can often be their ticket out of isolation. There are interactive environments that children can operate within, talking to other family member or friends, explore virtual worlds.  

These environments can also be used to teach positive social interaction and improve behavior. In 2006, researchers at the University of Southern California used a Virtual Reality Classroom to help give students with ADHD classroom experience. They were able to slowly introduce distractors as student learned to master their impulse control, attention span, and hyperactivity. Students were better equipped to take on a real classroom with peers after the program.  

There are many interactive worlds for children and adults to take part in. In a virtual environment, children become more than their limitations; their personality takes center stage. Their likes, dislikes, curiosities, and passions move to the forefront. Virtual worlds cater to individuals in a way that the world never can.

VR is a needed addition to the experience of so many children and adults living with special needs. It opens the doors to a whole new world, providing opportunities for education, experiences, and social interaction. VR helps equalize students, catering to their specific learning needs, allowing them to keep pace with their peers and study unique subjects in a controlled environment that fits their needs. They can safely train in real, world-scenarios that give them the freedom to fail and practice without fear.

We often talk about degrees of freedom in Virtual Reality, how many directions you can turn your head and what you use to control your environment. But it is important to realize that VR offers more than just a fun toy for tech junkies. It creates new freedom for the wheelchair-bound, the overwhelmed, or the isolated. It helps connect them to the world in meaningful ways that build their self-confidence and abilities, all while helping them do tasks and make friends that we take for granted in our everyday lives. This is the freedom that matters.

By Danielle Savage


“Current Uses of Virtual Reality for Children with Disabilities” by Joan McComas, Jayne Pivik, Mark Laflamme, University of Ottawa, published May 17, 2014

“An evaluation of the efficacy of training people with learning disabilities in a virtual environment”, B.M. Brooks, F.D. Rose, E.A. Attree, And A. Elliot-Square, published July 7, 2009

“Virtual Reality and Special Needs” by Tara L. Jeffs, Loudoun County Public Schools

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