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28 September 2007

Second chance at life

Catherine Bray meets Simon Stevens to find out why someone would choose to be disabled in a world wh

By Catherine Bray

If you could choose a new physique at the click of a button, what would you change? Would you be thinner? Taller? Have broader shoulders? Use a wheelchair? Possibly that last option is not top of your personal wish-list. But for young entrepreneur Simon Stevens, a wheelchair is an absolute must – even in a virtual environment like Second Life.

For those who haven’t explored it, Second Life is a 3D equivalent of certain key elements of the internet. There are a variety of shops, places people can meet and chat; there are newspapers, and communities of shared interests.

What makes Second Life different, however, is that all these elements are incorporated into a three-dimensional world that you can wander at will. How? Well you create a character, called an ‘avatar’ and in doing so you wield power over every facet of your appearance. As anyone who has browsed the highly selective world of MySpace profile pictures might expect, avatars are commonly a fantasy version of the user.

Entrepreneur Simon Stevens’ avatar is tanned, slim, has dark hair, runs a successful online nightclub called Wheelies, and moves around Second Life’s virtual world in a wheelchair. To understand why, it helps to understand a bit more about what kind of man Stevens is.

He has cerebral palsy. This affects his speech, he has difficulties with stairs and he wears a helmet to protect his head in case of a fall. One of his biggest frustrations is when people seeing him for the first time draw the conclusion that he has a learning difficulty, and indeed Stevens can be witheringly dismissive of “fucking bastard normals”.

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As becomes clear on reading Stevens’ impassioned manifesto 74 Ways Of Upsetting A Disabled Person, he’s a provocative man. Number 45 on his list of irritations are “normals” – Steven’s preferred term for people without disabilities – who say “let’s call a spade a spade” and then use terms like ‘handicapped’.

Stevens, a Coventry University graduate and chief executive of his own business, Enable Enterprises, adds: “Language has been, is and will always remain a very important tool in defining ourselves and how we interact with each other.”

An avatar can be a visual shorthand of your identity, for projecting who you are. It’s not so very different to the aspirations we demonstrate in the clothes we wear on different occasions. In Second Life this is extended to chosen gender, race, and physical form – including whether one is in a wheelchair – but not to the capabilities of that physical form. Thus, an avatar in a wheelchair can go anywhere a conventional avatar can, though it moves in a way that Stevens describes as “a bit bumpy”.

You could argue that equal mobility renders being disabled online an entirely cosmetic trait. This misunderstands what it is about real life that Stevens would change if he could. Hard as some might find it to credit, Stevens would never want to be “cured”, arguing, “While some disabled people do indeed desire a cure, many do not and some like myself are actively opposed to any notion of cure. If you are what you are, why would you change? Would a normal change their gender or skin colour? If not, why should disabled people be any different?”

What Stevens wants is equal treatment in real life. If access ramps, handrails and other aids were introduced wherever necessary, he would find real life as easy to navigate as Second Life, and this is the change he wants made.

Stevens uses a wheelchair in Second Life because he believes “avatars are our inner selves”, and that his wheelchair is part of that. He’s not against cosmetic wish-fulfilment, however, admitting “I am certainly thinner in Second Life.”

Disability is a significant part of who Stevens is, and something he wants people to both be aware of and move beyond – it’s a delicate balancing act. Second Life is the perfect arena for that balancing act to play out, offering as it does, improved access and reduced social barriers.

At the same time, Second Life makes it easy to represent your personality in physical form. It’s hardly surprising that Simon gets frustrated with people who consider it just a game. “SL is not a game and not escapism,” he states. “The future is here, no silver suits – yet – but it’s here.”

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