I always assumed that exploring digital worlds with virtual reality (VR) just wasn’t in the cards for me. In 2009 I was diagnosed with lattice degeneration and had an intense year of sight-saving surgeries. The result was permanent double vision, no depth perception, no 3D vision, flashes, floaters, limited peripheral vision – the list goes on.
Making up excuses to avoid VR became my norm. I even created a blog post explaining how I write about technologies that I cannot use in the hopes it would help other disabled communicators tackle work and exclusion simultaneously. When I joined Wheelhouse Group and learned I would be working with VR experts, I figured it would be business as usual.
That is until I began working on accessible technology resources. Suddenly I was writing about ways to make VR inclusive for people with vision loss. I resisted getting my hopes up until my co-worker, Ashley Coffey, offered to send me one of her head-mounted displays (HMDs) so that I could try VR for myself. By testing VR, I now better understand how it can help employees with and without vision loss at work.*
Interacting with Creative Content
Remember the days of getting up and drawing ideas on a whiteboard in a conference room? While those exercises may have been productive for some, I always found myself squinting at the blurry board. With VR, there is a crisp and immersive way for me to interact with creative content. I tested an art app that let me surround myself with bright colors and closely inspect them with each stroke. Because VR immerses you in the digital content, there is an opportunity to examine and process what you see without needing to stand up in front of a room full of colleagues and squint at each bullet point.
Supporting Mental Health
I want to underscore this important topic that Ashley covered in a recent blog post, Extended Reality & Mental Health Support. In my experience, my vision loss has led to feelings of disconnection and isolation. Due to my extreme light sensitivity, I have been a remote employee for the majority of the past decade. While controlling my environment is helpful, it can make me feel cut off from coworkers. VR can give remote employees a sense of collaboration. By hosting meetings and events in virtual spaces, workers can feel connected and participate in shared activities.
Navigating Physical Spaces
This is a potential benefit of VR that I would personally like to become more mainstream. Employees working in a physical office can use VR to learn the layout before entering the building. When I need to go to a new location for a conference or work assignment, I always go ahead of time for a test run. I need to explore the layout, locate the unexpected decorative plant that I may trip over and navigate to my destination. With a virtual double of a space, I could do a practice run without needing to be in the location. This can have many benefits beyond exploration for those of us with vision loss. For example, dangerous job sites can create virtual experiences that allow workers to practice navigating them safely.
Participating in Employee Onboarding
Employee onboarding is often a mandatory in-person activity. However, with companies conducting more virtual onboarding due to the pandemic, they are beginning to see the in-person requirement may be unnecessary. This could greatly reduce issues such as transportation concerns and fatigue that people like myself experience when a remote opportunity turns out not to be fully remote. In fact, VR is becoming a popular option for global workplaces, with employers like Accenture creating robust virtual onboarding programs.
Inclusion Is Key
Testing VR showed me several ways I can use the technology for work. It is important to share that the biggest barrier I encountered was visual fatigue. My eyes worked so hard to take in the rich environments around me that I had to limit my time in VR. However, that didn’t outweigh the benefits. By testing VR with a guide, I learned that there are ways that HMDs and immersive experiences can be tailored to my unique vision.
As I work on resources for the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology, an initiative funded by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy and managed by Wheelhouse Group, I can now incorporate my lived experience with VR. It’s exciting to think that baking inclusion into future technologies will open a gateway for more people with disabilities to find meaningful employment and pathways to self-expression. It’s a future that I cannot wait to become a reality.
*Please note that vision loss presents differently in each person, and the way that VR may support or impede their work may not match my experiences.