Niagara university, college using virtual reality to show life facing disabled students on campus
Published August 28, 2023 at 12:22 pm
It is one thing for college and university students to feel sympathy or empathy for fellow students with disabilities on post-secondary campuses.
It is quite another to be able to virtually experience their everyday challenges.
However, students at both Niagara College and Brock University will have that opportunity as they harness the power of virtual reality (VR) to see what it is like to live in that world.
The collaboration between the two post-secondary institutions was developed by a team of Niagara-area educators and funded by a $105,000 grant from the Virtual Learning Strategy.
In the fall 2023 semester, the VR simulations – four in total – will be part of an interdisciplinary Niagara College course on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Decolonization taken by students in over 30 programs, as well as in Brock’s Accessibility Consultant Micro-Credential.
The VR simulations were developed and tested by Niagara College professors Theresa Anzovino and Jamie Oresar, Adaptive Technology Specialist Jim McEwen, and Brock University’s Dr. Maureen Connolly, Director of the Brock-Niagara Centre of Excellence in Inclusive and Adaptive Physical Activity (CAPA), to give students a window into the lives of people with disabilities, to raise awareness about ableist interactions, and to learn about appropriate responses and strategies for challenging ableism.
“The project aligns with the vision and guiding principles of (the college’s) Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Blueprint with a focus on authentic inclusion and accessibility,” said McEwen.
“As (the college) employees with disabilities, it was important to us that the simulations be centered on authentic lived experiences of the disability community. Using the power of immersive VR, for a moment, you can get a firsthand glimpse of how ableism, microaggressions, and systemic obstacles can affect people with disabilities.”
Donning Oculus Quest II VR headsets with handheld controls, simulations allow students to engage with characters from different backgrounds and scenarios on post-secondary campuses that focus on a range of barriers including physical, architectural, and attitudinal.
In the first simulation, a student has experienced a concussion, and players advise them as a peer on how to work through recovery and a return-to-learn plan.
In the second, players take the role of a professor and meet with a student requesting a letter of accommodation.
In the third simulation, a student with low vision who uses a mobility aid comes to the parking office to discuss their concerns.
The final simulation challenges assumptions about wheelchair usage, as players assume the role of a security staff member, engaging with a student who is the subject of a formal complaint.
Niagara College’s Oresar and McEwen – with support from part-time Sociology professor Krystine Donato – piloted the simulation to a group of 10 students from the College’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion General Education elective.
“As a person with a disability, the simulations are accurate and respectful and what I would want people to see,” said Donato. “You can’t really know how the person feels or what they experience, but you can listen.”
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