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Will Virtual Reality Be Accessible to People With Epilepsy?

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As we wait with bated breath for the effects of what is arguably the first wave of consumer-based virtual reality products, it is natural to anticipate a shift, a rift if you will, in entertainment and social interaction.

Will products like the Oculus Rift and the Sony VR headset merely provide an alternate way to experience media? Or do they represent the first step in our inevitable decline into Wall-E-esque existence? One could make an argument for either, as well as ponder the pros and cons of each.

Other relevant stories:
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Is Epilepsy an Autoimmune Disease
Can Epilepsy Kill You

What may also be worth considering is the impact an easily available portal into virtual reality will have on those with disabilities.

It’s not hard to imagine how a virtual reality device can provide benefits to those with a range of mobility and mental disabilities. For example, someone with paralysis could “walk” on the beach or climb a mountain. People with anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder can partake in exposure therapy with less risk (in fact, these services are already being offered at places like Home Base, a Boston-based service for veterans). I could go on.

But it’s worth considering, if only for a moment, how a fully immersive, widely accepted virtual world would affect those unable to visit it. Specifically, how will virtual reality affect people with photosensitive epilepsy? Will the medium help or hinder us?

Let’s take a step back to the primitive two-dimensional world of early 90’s video games. As a photosensitive epileptic child, I wasn’t allowed to play video games. I couldn’t watch certain movies or television shows (sometimes I didn’t realize this until I had to hide under my coat in a movie theater), and I definitely couldn’t go to clubs (because the lights, not the fact that I was 12 and couldn’t possibly pass for 18). These experiences, or rather non-experiences, are hardly things to complain about. But will these limitations transfer to virtual reality?

I have found that yes, they can.

I recently bought the HTC Vive, a virtual reality device I have to admit is awesome, as in literally, “awe”-some. You really feel like you’re in a different place. But at one point I had to throw the headset off because I was suddenly bombarded by flashing images. Would they have caused a seizure? Who knows. But the experience definitely caused anxiety.

I, for one, am not against the development of virtual realities. I recognize the extreme talent, artistically and technically, that goes into creating virtual reality products and landscapes. It’s amazing that we can replicate and advance our own environments, a lot of times for the better. But the truth is that a virtual reality may never be a reality to those with seizure disorders. An already highly-stigmatized disorder could become even more noticeable with an increased trend toward a digital existence.

While shedding light on epilepsy is a necessity (I am, after all, writing this article), virtual reality could amplify the alienation some epileptics often feel. As virtual reality hedges toward a truer reality, and perhaps a preferable or default reality, how will those unable to access this new “global community” adjust? I won’t pretend to know the answer, but I believe this incredible new medium has the potential to change how we view (or don’t view) all types of disabilities. Let’s make it for the better.

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Originally published: January 23, 2017
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