May 8, 2011

some thoughts about disability in SL

in the previous post I mentioned a friend who spends much of her time to create things for the disabled.

Now since I started to spend some of my time online with a handicapped avatar myself - and I've learned a lot about how people react on some disabilities - I also wondered about the reasons why people in general use handicapped avatars.
It's gonna be long, so there is a short "TL'DR" summary at the end. :)

As I said, I used it to learn about the reactions. One of my characters in "a" story of mine (I don't know yet if this character gets involved in "Mirror Visions part 2" or in another story) is an armless girl, with just little stumps for arms. So, I created an avatar after her.
No, I haven't been active in the Virtual Ability community with her, and at no other amputee places either (though I did visit Club Accessible more often than not), and I also didn't openly pretend to be such handicapped: I even did play a role in a normal town RP, and (using the famous Jessica Cox as a shiny example for an armless person's ability to drive a car (and even to fly an airplane!)), sweet even drove the taxi and the bus there. Who said that handicapped people have no useful ability at all? Or that they have to be considered "dis-abled"?

Anyways: one dear friend of mine is an amputee in RL, and she admitted that it hurt her to see her avatar NOT mirroring her own handicap. She said "I just couldn't stand seeing this avatar with two legs, and then looking at my own stump on the chair below the keyboard" - thus, her avatar very quickly became an amputee like her RL self. Others I've met thanks to the connections of my alt and this friend have been likewise: the handicap of their avatars mirror the handicaps of their RL bodies - no matter if it's the wheelchair, amputation stumps of all sorts, prostheses, braces, thick glasses - or even a scripted seeing-eye dog.

But, not all handicapped people are like them. Many many more with RL handicap don't even consider to mirror their RL handicaps into SL at all. Since everyone can be what ever they want or dream to be, many handicapped people rather prefer to use a "normal", non-handicapped avatar. You'll never know that they are handicapped until they tell you if you meet them at places like Virtual Ability, Club Accessible or others. Maybe the avatar you dance with at the moment, or that escort/dancer on that stage, or your friendly newbie mentor, or the newbie you teach something, or or the kajira in your furs, or the Master you serve in SL actually is a handicapped person in RL? Who knows?

Though - like my alt, not all handicapped avatars are steered by real handicapped people.
"Why that?", you may ask. "Why in all world would someone even want to use a handicapped avatar if they have no handicap in RL?" Well, I'd answer with a grin: "Simply because they can."

Some, for example, do it for role-play reasons.
Whether it's because their RP character gets mutilated during a role-play scenario (like, when thieves get their hand chopped off, or a shark eats the seaman's leg, or someone gets blinded), or because they play a somehow handicapped person within an RP - for them it's important to stay in that role as plausibly and consequently as possible to follow the continuity of their RP. If you want to play your role well, you just play out all consequences of whatever happens to your role, even if it means that your character is handicapped from one RP night on.
Others for example use steam-powered prostheses for their avatars in a steampunk surrounding, or walk around as cyborgs - part human, part machine (which again means that the human part would  be massively handicapped without the machine part), so they just as well play a handicapped person, but aren't handicapped for real.

Well, as I  stated above, my own alt sweet was created based on a character in my own stories, who is a bilateral arm amputee.
I thought it would have been way too personal to ask a real amputee about their feelings on how others react on them, or how they struggle with such rather non-technical details like: "do I dress this so that my stump(s) can be seen, or rather that to hide it(them)? Which prosthesis goes with which outfit, or will I rather go without? And if I go without, will others think I'm ugly?" I know that's an entire different quality of questions than asking how they'll cope with the everyday obstacles that appear with having stumps or prostheses for arms or legs (or without ability to see or hear) anyways. And I wanted to have my personal POV on it. Thus, sweet was born.
With my alt sweet, I am a rather normal girl who just happens to have stumps instead of arms. And strangely, at most places, people don't even realize sweet's handicap unless I ask them, for example, to open a door (I use RLV  with my alt, and disabled "far touch" ), or unless they see me go unusually close to vendors to touch them ("with my feet"), or unless they wonder why my avatar never shows such arm  animations, like when others run their hands through their own hair or point at things and so on.  But when they finally realize it (which, in Koeln, even took more than an hour) then it's like "WOW, she doesn't have any arms!" - and then the different reactions begin, which others whose handicaps are much more obvious usually have to deal with immediately.

It's really interesting to experience all these reactions, both positive and negative - though some reactions are really bothersome. That's the reactions and comments of the "devotees".

Who or what are "devotees" now, and what do they have to do with this topic?
That's a word for those who feel mainly attracted to handicapped people. Like some of us prefer brunettes or tall people, "devotees" prefer people who have one specific handicap - and for some few of them, this handicap can't be specific enough.
Like for example your ideal beauty may be "a 5ft5inch-tall tomboyish girl with shoulder-long red hair, brown eyes and freckles and a fiercy but submissive character", the ideal beauty of a devotee could be for example "a nice blonde, slim, not too tall woman with two equally 3 inch long, nicely rounded arm stumps and with the scars nicely removed and with ..." - you get the point.
A woman can be thus nice, blonde, slim, not too tall - can even have bilateral arm amputations, but if only one of her stumps is longer or shorter than those 3 inches, she isn't attractive for them.
That's the reason why there are some devotees in SL who create their avatars so that they become their own ideal beauty.

Then,  there are those who suffer from BIID, Body Integrity Identity Disorder, a condition which is quite the opposite to the phantom limbs amputees suffer from: They feel that one - or several - of their limbs, despite being attached  to their bodies and being fully functional, are "not really a part of their body".
You can compare that to having, for example, a second set of fully functional arms attached to your body: you would realize them as being too much, as disturbing attachments that always get into the way, as being "not really parts of your body" as well. So, of course you would wish they simply weren't there. Some of you might have the desire to be without those arms #3 and #4 entirely. You would pretend that this set of extra arms simply weren't there, you would bind them up or keep them underneath your clothes so you couldn't use them even by reflex (thus, being what is called a "pretender"), and the more daring ones of you would go all ways to finally get them removed at all costs, even by risking your health trying (thus, becoming a "wannabe").
And of course, the Hippocratic Oath and other ethic agreements forbid surgeons to remove healthy limbs (especially if you only have as many limbs as the average person), so these people are bound to suffer from this desire for their entire life, unless they finally manage to somehow get the disturbing limb removed.
In SL though, at least their avatars can look how they feel their own body should look like - with the disturbing limb(s) being removed, or the disturbing ability taken away. Their desires come true - at least virtually.

TL'DR: Handicapped avatars can be (a) people who mirror their own RL handicaps, (b) role-players who just play their role as plausible as possible, (c) devotees who use their avatar as object of their own desire, or (d) people who suffer from BIID.

Based on the people I've met, I'd dare say that those who belong to category (a) are the biggest of the groups, then comes (b) and (d), and then, as a tiny minority: (c).

So, whenever you see a handicapped avatar - don't treat them badly: they probably have the same handicap in RL.

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