Increasing Accessibility Through Virtual Reality: A Look at VR’s Therapeutic Potential

Cosmopolis (2005) is a giant virtual reality interactive installation by Maurice Benayoun

Cosmopolis (2005) is a giant virtual reality interactive installation by Maurice Benayoun

A highly immersive experience, Virtual Reality (VR) technology allows users to transport themselves to another place and time: they are not simply spectators in a virtual world; they are part of that world. At first glance, VR is the ultimate gaming technology; however, VR is not just for gamers. The same immersive experience that makes VR such an attractive entertainment device has significant therapeutic properties for patients suffering from traumatic experiences, severe burns, and even learning disabilities.

As VR makes its way into headlines, living rooms, classrooms, and even museum exhibitions, its therapeutic potential is becoming apparent as well. This creates an exciting consideration for museums, which have made significant progress toward increasing accessibility for visitors with disabilities, both physical and mental, over the past two decades. Before examining how VR has the ability to shape accessibility initiatives in museums, let’s consider the relationship between VR and accessibility at large.


Virtual Reality as a Therapeutic Tool

Research on VR’s therapeutic potential is not new. In a 2004 study that began in 1996, researchers Hunter G. Hoffman, Director of the Virtual Reality Research Center at the University of Washington, and David R. Patterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington Medical School, examined VR’s ability to ease both physical and psychological pain by testing virtual-reality techniques on burn patients.

VR-therapy is used to treat burn victims in order to help alleviate pain

VR-therapy is used to treat burn victims in order to help alleviate pain

Since pain has a significant psychological factor, introducing distractions can sometimes help to alleviate pain. For burn victims, this is crucial: patients receiving wound care continue to report severe to excruciating pain after opioid medication, even while using distractions such as listening to music or playing video games.

Enter SpiderWorld, a virtual-reality tool developed to overcome a phobia of spiders. SpiderWorld was created in the mid-1990s as a joint effort between researchers at the Human Interface Technology Lab (HITLab) at the University of Washington and Firsthand Technologies. The tool was first tested on two teenage boys who had suffered gasoline burns and subsequently received skin-graft surgery, which was held together by staples. During the removal of the staples, the boys received their usual opioid medication, and, in addition, spent equal amounts of time playing a popular Nintendo game, and SpiderWorld. Unlike video games (sorry, Nintendo), the virtual-reality-based illusion of wandering through a house and discovering a tarantula on the kitchen counter was much stronger for the two patients, drastically reducing the amount of pain the boys felt during treatment. HITLab conducted a follow-up study with 12 patients at Harborview Burn Center, and concluded that the virtual-reality-based therapy helped to reduce pain by as much as half.

Hoffman and Patterson explain that this is because human attention is like a spotlight, in that it tends to select one source of information while ignoring others. Because the illusion created in SpiderWorld was so engaging, it allowed patients to focus their attention on the virtual world, meaning less attention was available to process the pain signals from would care. As a result, patients experienced a dramatic decrease in their perception of pain.

VR technology has also been used as a kind of virtual-reality-based exposure therapy, encouraging patients to confront phobias such as a fear of flying, claustrophobia, and PTSD. In one of its early cases, VR was used to reduce the PTSD symptoms of a survivor from the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. The technology allows people who suffer from mental disorders to confront their fears in a safe, controlled environment, in order to eventually overcome them.

Furthermore, virtual-reality-based exposure therapy has a tendency to be more appealing to patients suffering from phobias and PTSD symptoms than traditional exposure therapy. In a study by CyberPsychology journal, only 3% of patients rejected using VR-therapy to treat their symptoms, while 27% of the patients rejected traditional exposure therapy techniques. This suggests that patients may be more receptive to using VR technology as a tool to overcome mental disorders.


Not Just for Adults

With the growing ubiquity of VR technology, it’s only natural that children will be drawn to the virtual world as well. As such, it is important to understand some of the long-term effects of VR on children. Increasingly, virtual reality is regarded as a form of assistive technology, helping children with disabilities explore environments in a way that would be difficult in real life.

This is achieved in several ways. First, VR allows children with disabilities to practice skills and tasks that are useful in the real world, such as cooking, learning social skills, or using a computer. By using avatars, children can identify their unique skills and strengths, and work towards mastering a task in a safe environment. Second, virtual-reality technology is customizable, so it can adapt to fit different learning styles. Various apps can be downloaded to help kids practice communication skills, or develop kinesthetic abilities and motor skills, to name a few. Additionally, the amount of stimuli presented in the VR system can be regulated, so as to accommodate children with autism or sensory learning disabilities. Third, the use of VR can help boost confidence and self-esteem in children with disabilities, since it allows them to practice and improve upon skills that are used in day-to-day interactions. As a result, VR technology can help to instill a sense of independence in children.  

The benefits of using VR to guide children through real-life experiences can be especially useful for children with autism. People on the autism spectrum experience disabilities in several areas, including social and communication skills, fine and motor skills, and sometimes cognitive abilities. Virtual reality can help children with autism encounter new experiences in a supportive setting, and develop skills that they can then transfer over to the real world.


So How Does This Relate to Museums?

Museums can be difficult for any child, and especially tough for children with disabilities who may not be used to the unfamiliar environment, loud noises, and unusual social cues. Many museums, particularly children’s museums, are actively working to create inclusive programming that increases accessibility for people with disabilities. This not only includes ADA compliance to assist people with physical disabilities, but often involves a greater emphasis on accommodating people with mental and sensory disabilities.

As a result, museums are making greater efforts to implement sensory-friendly programming, so as to accommodate children that are on the autism spectrum. The Smithsonian, for example, hosts “Morning at the Museum” and invites children with autism and their families to visit the museum in a more sensory-friendly environment before opening to the public. The goal of the program is to prepare children on the autism spectrum and their families for the museum experience, and to encourage future visits.

As with “Morning at the Museum”, however, these programs tend to take place outside normal museum hours, either on days when the museum is closed, or for a couple hours before it opens. From a facilities standpoint, it is difficult to accommodate some of the specialized needs for people with disabilities, particularly those on the autism spectrum who can be highly sensitive to their surroundings.

Given VR’s success in helping children with disabilities cope with new environments, VR could be used as a way to offer a more integrated museum experience for families of children with disabilities. Rather than limiting museum access to specific dates and times, VR could very well provide the kind of environment that children on the autism spectrum need in order to better enjoy their visit. Additionally, VR’s customizability allows users to choose an experience that fits their learning style, meaning the technology can be adjusted to fit a variety of needs.

Finally, VR has the potential to provide an inclusive experience for adults who are on the spectrum as well. For the most part, accessibility programming for autism and sensory-disabilities is geared toward children, often leaving adults living with these disabilities out of the picture. However, it is important to remember that autism does not go away as children grow older; in order for accessibility initiatives to reach their full potential, they need to account for differences in age as well. VR’s ability to provide customizable experiences in a safe, controlled environment can serve as a way for museums to offer accessible programming that bridges the gap between childhood and adulthood. As a result, the use of VR in museums has the potential to shape accessibility initiatives so they are more inclusive, allowing both children and adults with mental disabilities to participate in the museum experience in ways they may not otherwise have access to.


Banner image by Maurice Benayoun, licensed by Creative Commons.

In-text image by, licensed by Creative Commons.