The proliferation of highly sought-after gadgets like the HTV Vive and Oculus Rift have been causing global raving waves. Virtual reality, or VR for short, refers to the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional space. Wearing special equipment, you will be able to engage and interact within the space in a seemingly realistic manner.

 

With well-known films and books like “The Matrix” and “Ready Player One”, the public would have been well aware of what it is to come.

 

Technology has come of age.

 

The exciting part about this development is beyond mere entertainment, for virtual reality houses immense potential for the social sector. 

 

What would happen if practitioners match-make virtual reality, as a new solution, to the old problem of inspiring and care-giving for children with special needs?

 

The term “special needs” covers a spectrum of educational requirements resulting from learning difficulties, physical disability, or emotional and behavioural difficulties.

 

How can virtual reality become the new solution? It may very well be the platform where children with emotional difficulties can take the first step out, forming trust and fostering a sense of familiarity for spaces such as public playgrounds.

 

For children with mobility issues, it might be the best alternative for them to travel around and explore the environment.

 

For the social sector, virtual reality definitely has the potential to become a mighty tool for special needs in education, bringing nature and science conveniently nearer to the children like no generation has experienced before.

 

Nonetheless, VR is a double-edged sword, just like other tool in the world.

 

 

Do the pros outweigh the cons so much that the social sector should invest in it for the long haul?

 

 

Carrying so much promise, much hope has been placed on VR that it would bridge a huge gap for children with special needs. Will it be significant enough for practitioners in the field to change their training programmes?

 

Can we use our adaptability to attract the right talents to come onboard, joining us as a forward-looking sector?

Virtual reality has already been impacting the world tangibly in ways more than one.

What factors do we need to consider? Let’s talk about it.

 

Here are the pro(s):

 

It is not just “show-and-tell”

Children with disabilities have the opportunity to learn and practice new skills. Within a safe space, they are able to learn practical know-hows  such as crossing busy streets, running simple errands or purchasing things in public. It brings the “hands-on experience” up to a whole new level for they are also able to venture out with an adventurous heart. 

 

It is a safe space to learn how to socialise

As socialisation with other kids might seem daunting or even intimidating for many, VR can be the bridge to allow easy interactions to take place first. As time passes, children with special needs can learn and experience how it’s like to make friends in a social setting like school. This is beneficial as many of them are often confined within their own homes. Vice versa, it is a good medium for the public to understand and know more about special needs as well.

 

It calms children down and gets them to focus

Virtual reality is such an immersive experience that it can most likely grab and retain the attention of every user. This is a highly useful tool for caregivers for they are able to calm children down and get them to focus on specific things like classes.

 

It designs a better user-experience

From the perspective of the service providers and product sellers, virtual reality is useful in testing the design of services, goods and facilities for special needs. As not all of these designers are able to fully empathise, testing their creations out in VR is a more effective way in gaining constructive feedback.

 

It can be needs-specific

One of VR’s best traits is that it is highly malleable. Targeting specific details and needs of every child, VR is able to morph and provide relevant functions. For example, the factors of stimuli in a game for a child who has autism can be minimised so that he/she will be able to focus. Wheelchair-bound children will suit a virtual environment that is sensitive to height as they might not be able to reach it if it is too high up.

 

Having said that, here’s the other side of the coin:



Receptivity towards VR

 

Not everyone will be able to adapt to VR straight. For a start, motion sickness and other technical issues might deter usage. VR is fairly new and even though activities are mostly indoors, there can still be safety hazards if there is a lack of caution.

 

For example, furniture around the room can be dangerous for the user if it is not removed out of reach.



Cost and expenses

 

The price of a VR device is not cheap, and beneficiaries will definitely face a challenge in purchasing it.

The other more affordable option will be the Google cardboard, and applications-wise, Google expeditions was created for teachers to bring the world into the classroom. However, the overall experience would probably be compromised when compared to an actual device.

 

Riding the trendy waves of the global sharing economy, perhaps we can look into a rental social business model so that every family would be able to afford, or share, one. However, issues such as user responsibility and maintenance would have to be resolved as well.



Losing touch of reality

 

Needless to say, an over-reliance of technology will cause users to lose touch with reality. On an extreme end, an addiction towards virtual reality may cause the user to withdraw himself or herself completely from reality.

Even through the use of an avatar online can help the child can focus on their sense of self instead of their disability, there might also be psychological issues with self-esteem. It would be harmful when the child’s sense of identity is embedded with his/her avatar.

 

Conclusion: Using changing tools in changing times

Laying all these points on the table, would the social sector (ie. VWOs, NGOs or SEs) be willing to raise her stakes and invest in VR for special needs?  Again, the decision to include VR as a novel solution will catalyse changes in current training programmes. With an adaptable mindset, we can use the right tool at the right time.   

If done right, the target beneficiaries could even be expanded to include other age groups. However, other age groups might not be as receptive towards the technology as children are. With greater usage and innovative mediums, VR can morph accordingly to suit specific needs of every individual. How can we improve our intervention with trending social concepts like design-thinking, community-mapping and a human-centric experience? 


No matter which direction, a united stance to use VR is key to achieving good success. Only then can we disrupt the status quo for good.

 

 

 

Useful links and references

 

Cheng, C. (2014). Early Childhood Administrators’ Admission Decision Making Process in Including Children with Special Needs in Singapore. ASIA-PACIFIC JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION, 8(1).

 

Google Cardboard – Google VR. (2017). Vr.google.com. Retrieved 21 August 2017, from https://vr.google.com/cardboard/

 

Google Expeditions. (2017). Edu.google.com. Retrieved 21 August 2017, from https://edu.google.com/expeditions/McComas, J., Pivik, J., & LeFlamme, M. (1998). Current Uses of Virtual Reality for Children with Disabilities. Virtual Environments In Clinical Psychology And Neuroscience.

 

McComas, J., Pivik, J., & LeFlamme, M. (1998). Current Uses of Virtual Reality for Children with Disabilities. Virtual Environments In Clinical Psychology And Neuroscience.

Olanoff, D. (2017). Here’s What Virtual Reality Means For Kids Stuck In The Hospital. TechCrunch. Retrieved 12 July 2017, from https://techcrunch.com/2015/12/08/heres-what-virtual-reality-means-for-kids-stuck-in-the-hospital/