Technology can help us to experience stories in new ways. Mixed reality, virtual reality, spatial audio, and other mediums allow us to create experiences where the participants can feel a sense of agency over the story and explore it in embodied and immersive ways. With the development of these new mediums, we also have the ability to tell inclusive, diverse stories that don't often get told. In this article, I want to talk about how we can reimagine disability in order to build inclusive, immersive performances.
I am a designer and researcher currently studying for a Ph.D. focused on how we can use immersive, playful design for education and social change. I have made several immersive experiences where players are co-located, such as live escape rooms and theatrical experiences in which players are interacting with the story remotely. I am also disabled. Being visually impaired has always informed my design, as it informs much of my life. I want to be able to take part in these experiences, so I aim to create games that can include other people.
We are long past the need for all technological research around disability to be focused on looking at how technology can solve a particular disability. There has also been a move to actively include disabled people in accessibility research . This move is in line with the move away from a medical or deficit model of disability. In this model, disability is seen as being located within the disabled person themselves, and the only thing that is preventing them from accessing society is their impairments. It puts an unhelpful emphasis on fixing the disability, with less consideration given to how the world can be adapted to make space for the person. Imagine a website that has developed a green and red color scheme for its background and foreground text. Under a medical model of disability, we may seek to give someone who experiences red-green color blindness glasses that adapt the colors to correct their vision, whereas changing the website colors so there is a better color contrast removes this barrier while likely helping other people in the process.
Today's technologies allow us to create theater, games, and other experiences that are more immersive than ever before. The aim of immersion is to allow someone to feel like they are being totally surrounded and enveloped by the narrative. They are not just a passive observer but rather an active participant, with little of the outside world there to distract them. Of course, people can feel immersed in anything, but the use of embodied techniques and technologies has helped to deepen this immersion. Example technologies include spatial audio that make it sound like you are in a particular space by altering how participants experience the audio, virtual reality to make it look or feel like you're in a space, and augmented reality. These technologies can provide the basis for creative experiences and performances, which is what this article will focus on. Escape rooms frequently utilize different technologies to create the sense that you are actually inside the environment and fully engaged by the narrative. Immersive theater companies like Swamp Motel and Parabolic Theatre have created live online performances where you role play a character, interact with actors, and solve mysteries while using only online artifacts and a videoconferencing platform. These performances make participants feel like they are immersed in a story despite being seated at their computer.
These new ways of building immersion are incredibly exciting, so we should avoid barriers to entry to disabled people. In this article, I will be looking at the ways in which we can build immersive experiences where disability inclusion is considered from the ground up.
In order to look at how we can progress disability inclusion within immersive experiences, I want to use the social model of disability as a lens. The social model of disability was developed by disabled activists in the mid-20th century who sought to challenge the ways in which we understand disabled people . Previously, the medical model of disability held that disability was located in the disabled person—that it was someone's impairments that held them back from accessing parts of society. A social model sees the disability as constructed by the barriers placed on people from external sources. For example, when considering low vision, the social model would hold that the disability is located not in the eye being formed incorrectly or in an astigmatism but rather in other factors, such as how our environment is constructed or the ways in which written language has been developed. In this way, we can reframe the problem. For example, someone's inability to read a form is not the fault of their visual impairment, for which they must find mitigations; rather, the problem is that the form does not have a large enough text size or is not provided in an audio format.
When you are designing, you should consider how you can be flexible in your designs.
This model is not without its flaws. Many have argued it does not account sufficiently for lived experience when it comes to disability. In this way, the social model of disability is sometimes seen as purely focusing on overarching societal tensions without considering the pluralistic and individual experiences of disabled people when interacting with the world . However, it remains a useful tool to use to help us to build inclusion within our design practice instead of simply expecting individuals to adapt themselves.
Given all of this, I would like to propose some provocations for how we can build immersive experiences, performances, and productions that include disability inclusion from the ground up. These are based on my experiences as a participant as well as productions I have developed alongside other disabled people.
Flexibility. Disability covers a wide range of experiences, many of which you cannot anticipate. Living in a world that is not designed for you means that you are forever coming up with hacks and workarounds to be able to access different parts of society. However, what this means is that when you are designing, you should consider how you can be flexible in your designs. In these cases, I will often focus on the purpose of the interaction as opposed to the method of imparting the message. I once worked on an online immersive production based on a submarine. Part of the experience involved hearing voice recordings from another submarine. We were able to provide two tracks: one that had atmospheric background sounds of beeping and submarine noises in the background and one that was just the voice of the actor. During this run, we had Deaf participants as well as those who struggled with audio processing, so providing the two audio tracks in addition to transcripts meant that they were able to have control over their interaction with the game. This meant we could focus on the content that needed to be relayed as opposed to relying on the delivery medium. I have found that being transparent about the contents of experiences will usually allow people to have conversations about what they need and will rarely get in the way of any surprises contained within.
Different interaction methods. One of the joys of immersive performances is that they allow for a 360-degree approach to storytelling and narrative. If you are developing an experience with a narrative, you can focus on providing multiple paths to the same content by looking at the different interaction methods. When developing situated escape rooms, we often look at different ways that people can solve a puzzle by finding the clues to the puzzles in different ways. For example, if clues to a puzzle involve reading entries from a diary, we might accompany these diary entries with being able to contact an actor whose character is a friend of the person who wrote the diary. By allowing for different ways to reach a goal, participants are able to still feel a sense of achievement while being able to move through a narrative in the way that suits them best.
Working alongside disabled people and portraying our experiences. None of the above would have been possible without consulting people early on within the process. By getting feedback early and often, you are able to find potential areas where your design may not be suitable. For live performances, we will often reach out to participants before the production to ask if they have any accessibility requirements. Nine times out of ten, we will be able to accommodate these needs. It's important to trust people about their experiences and accessibility needs. When someone discloses an accessibility requirement to you, it is because they want to engage with your creation and they are trying to find ways that you can adapt to allow them into the space. Working with and listening to disabled people in an engaged way also allows you to improve the stories that you tell, allowing you to tell stories that do not simply reflect your own.
Many of these tips will sound like just good design practice. Which is true—being flexible, allowing for different interaction methods, and working with diverse practices from early on in the project is good design practice. However, there has long been a perspective that if someone cannot access an experience, it is the fault not of the designer but of the individual's impairments. There is a lot of potential within human-computer interaction for exploring the ways in which we can build disability inclusion into technology—embodied design is a really interesting place to explore this. It is possible to reimagine the ways in which we create experiences and entertainment to be more inclusive of disabled people and their stories. Once we move away from the idea that there is a standard, normal body and that everything else is inferior to or deviant from that, we can start to work with people early on in our design process to create experiences that have inclusivity at their heart. Hopefully this article has provided some provocations for immersive work that can inspire the future of design work in the space.
1. Spiel, K., Gerling, K., Bennett, C.L., Brulé, E., Williams, R.M., Rode, J., and Mankoff, J. Nothing about us without us: Investigating the role of critical disability studies in HCI. Extended Abstracts of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–8; https://doi.org/10.1145/3334480.3375150
3. Owens, J. Exploring the critiques of the social model of disability: The transformative possibility of Arendt's notion of power. Sociology of Health and Illness 37, 3 (2015), 385–403; https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.12199
Hazel Dixon is a third-year Ph.D. student who is creatively exploring how we might design immersive, playful experiences for education and social change. She has experience in designing immersive digital processes for sex education and global sustainability, including escape rooms. firstname.lastname@example.org
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