The Use of Virtual Reality with Persons with Disabilities 


Harry J. Murphy

Ed. D. Founder and Director Center on Disabilities California State University, Northridge Northridge, California, USA 91330 - 8340 

Phone: 818 677 2578, Fax: 818 677 4929 



The Center on Disabilities at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) was officially formed on May 7, 1993 with these words from the University president, Dr. Blenda J. Wilson:

"The Center on Disabilities will conduct research and demonstration projects into new technologies and service models, develop and publish materials of interest to the field of disability, assess and train persons with disabilities and those who serve them, and conduct conferences, seminars, and workshops in the United States and around the world." Stated in another way, the Center acts as a major player in the area of technology and disability, and creates forums for dissemination of information to an international community." 

Progrmas of the Center

The Center has three major functions: (1) provide leadership to the Center's "Students with Disabilities Resources"unit, where more than 900 students with disabilities in a general student population of 25,000 are assisted with educational support services such as counseling and tutoring; and provide training to students with disabilities in assistive technologies which will assist them in their university studies, prepare them for employment, and help them live independently, (2) conduct major international conferences in the area of technology and disability, and (3) seek grants and contracts to conduct innovative training programs such as our current offering, "Leadership and Technology Management"(LTM).

In a recent evaluation among almost 100 graduates of the "Leadership and Technology Management"training program, which has been conducted in California, Hawaii, and the island of Guam (an American territory, 3-1/2 hours south of Tokyo, Japan), it was found that graduates are securing funding for new technology laboratories, conducting new training programs, and creating new technologies to meet the needs of people with disabilities. The Center seeks to contract with organizations in the United States and elsewhere to encourage new leadership in the field of technology and disability.

Conferences of the Center

As many of you know, the Center on Disabilities conducts the largest annual international conference of its kind in the world, "Technology and Persons with Disabilities", which is held each March in Los Angeles. Our twelfth annual international conference will be held March 18-22, 1997.

This conference deals with a wide range of issues in the area of technology and disability including virtual reality and the use of assistive technologies to access, and contribute to, the Internet and World Wide Web. This conference brings more than 2,500 people each year to Los Angeles from almost every state in the U.S.A. and about 25 foreign countries. There are more than 120 exhibitors and approximately 300 speakers at this conference. Science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury, who himself has visual impairments, will keynote the March 1997 conference, and will sign autographs following his speech. Each year at this conference, we try to have a number of sessions dealing with virtual reality and disability for those who are interested in these technologies and applications.

Our interest in Virtual Reality

One major function of the Center is to identify promising new technologies and to create forums for the sharing of information before an international audience. To this end, we have conducted a number of other smaller conferences including "Voice Input/Output and Persons with Disabilities", two "NASA Employment Conferences", and three "Virtual Reality and Persons with Disabilities"conferences (1993, 1994, 1995). 

I should note at this point that we are not an engineering center, nor do we conduct research or engage in applications with virtual reality technologies. As advocates of the use of all assistive technologies, our major contribution is to create international forums where those who work in this field (engineers, researchers, manufacturers, software developers) can meet those who are interested in the use of these technologies.

Our interest in virtual reality began at our sixth annual international conference, "Technology and Persons with Disabilities", when our keynote speaker, Ted Saenger, President and Chief Executive Officer of Pacific Telesis, a large phone company on the west coast of the United States, spoke on "Virtuality". In broad terms, Mr. Saenger addressed the issue of virtual environments including the virtual corporation and the virtual office, and the power of telecommuting for individuals with disabilities. He also whetted our appetite for virtual reality: three-dimensional, interactive, computer-generated worlds. It was clear that virtual reality had great potential for training, as well as other applications to assist people with disabilities.

The Virtual Reality Field Becomes Interested in Disability; The Disability Field Becomes Interested in Virtual Reality

At about the same time that Ted Saenger spoke to us on "Virtuality", we had contacted Jaron Lanier, who is credited with coining the term "virtual reality". Lanier at that time was chief scientist with VPL in Redwood City, California. We booked Lanier as keynote speaker in 1992 for our seventh annual international "Technology and Persons with Disabilities" conference, and invited him to bring virtual reality equipment (input glove, head mounted display, hardware and software) to demonstrate virtual reality to our participants.

Lanier did so to the great interest of the field of technology and disability. It become clear to us that we had identified a major developing technology. We assumed the obligation to follow this technology and keep its potential before the field.

To this end, we developed a separate conference devoted entirely to virtual reality and disability. This conference has been conducted in 1993, 1994, and 1995 in San Francisco. Keynote speakers included Brenda Premo, Director, California State Department of Rehabilitation, Ray Bradbury, the famous science-fiction writer, and once again, Jaron Lanier. Attendees from the virtual reality field and the disability field, have had the opportunity to mingle, discuss applications, and share ideas of what the future might hold for persons with disabilities. 

Our objects in dealing with Virtual reality

Our objectives in dealing with virtual reality are:

(1) engage the virtual reality field in disability issues

(2) engage the disability field in the new technologies of virtual reality

(3) encourage new applications and provide a forum for dissemination of information

(4) engage the international community

Issues in virtual reality, which began as a part of the larger, "Technology and Persons with Disabilities,"conference, were highlighted in separate conferences devoted exclusively to virtual reality in San Francisco in 1993, 1994, and 1995. Our objectives continue to be met as a part of the larger conference in Los Angeles as we bring these issues to a much greater audience.

Participation of the International Community

The Center on Disabilities is very active in the international community. Participants from about 25 foreign countries participate in the conference, "Technology and Persons with Disabilities", and participants from about a dozen countries participated in our three "Virtual Reality and Persons with Disabilities" conferences. I have spoken at conferences in nine or ten countries and have provided consultation in five countries to develop technology conferences (including virtual reality conferences) of their own. Next month, I will speak on virtual reality and disability in Belgium We strongly encourage our friends around the world to become more engaged in all aspects of the assistive technology field, including virtual reality, through conferences, research, and demonstration projects.

Interesting Developments in Virtual Reality and Disability

The major part of this presentation will be conducted through the showing of videotapes of leading applications. Several that are worthy of mention include:

(1) Dean Inman ( of the Oregon Research Institute. Dr. Inman's system permits training of young children on power wheelchairs. To the uninitiated, a motorized wheelchair can be a dangerous vehicle. It is possible to tip it over, and/or run into people or objects at high speed. It is especially dangerous in crossing streets. This system puts a wheelchair on rollers in a safe (practice) environment, and through computer-generated worlds, provides training on a joystick for direction and speed, and allows one to travel on the sidewalk outside of the Institute and cross the street safely. Once a child has mastered the basic elements, he/she is then monitored as they actually move out of the building into the real environment.

(2) Suzanne Weghorst ( of the University of Washington. Dr. Weghorst has worked with people with movement disorders, such as Parkinson's Disease. She has developed a computer-generated world that trains a person to walk in relation to virtual objects. As you will see on the videotape, the training effect results in dramatic improvement.

(3) Ralph Lamson ( of Kaiser Hospital in northern California. Dr. Lamson has worked with people who fear heights. His computer-generated worlds provide training in incremental increases in distances. He has demonstrated reduction of fear through blood pressure and heart rate measures.

(4) Richard Satava ( of Walter Reed Hospital. Dr. Satava is a Colonel in the U. S. Army and a surgeon. His work includes a project in telepresence and will be shown in the videotape, "Modern Medical Battlefield". Through television and robotics, paramedics on site, and a surgeon at a remote location, can communicate and intervene in order to treat a wounded soldier at a battlefield location.


There are many exciting developments in the field of virtual reality. Applications in the field of disability are at an early stage. Most of the applications have been developed with "off the shelf" technologies, and minimal specialized programming. More people in the field of disability need to become involved in the potential of virtual reality. Conferences such as this one play an important role in stimulating ideas that may result in more applications. 

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