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      Putting Virtual Reality to Disability Activism : Co-Creation and Intersectional Pedagogical Usage in Japan



            Japan currently enjoys a “VR boom”, a proliferation of commercial virtual reality (VR) programs. As it pertains to disability studies, however, we observe troubling ableist and assimilatory tendencies such as a VR tool for implicit bias training for medical practitioners that promises “simulated experiences” of disabled people, or a VR vocational coaching tool designed to teach disabled people social scripts in professional settings. This article cautions against such stifling and one-dimensional approaches to disability and instead offers more expansive and transformative VR usage based on the creative and pedagogical practices the authors engage with: 1) a VR co-creation approach which revolves around disabled content creators and developers who forge disability-centered community spaces, and 2) a VR intersectional education approach which invites students – regardless of their disability status – to identify their interrelated struggles in an ableist, cisheteronormative, and patriarchal society, realizing their political responsibility for nurturing inclusivity with disabled community members.

            Main article text

            1. Introduction

            Japan is currently enjoying a “VR boom”, a proliferation of virtual reality (VR) programs for entertainment, educational, and vocational purposes since the late 2010s (Shin, 2016; Roquet, 2022). Beyond its initial hype within the gaming industry, startups and well-established companies alike are increasingly characterizing their VR programs as a tool for diversity and inclusion training. Seen from a disability studies perspective, however, we observe troubling ableist and assimilatory tendencies in many such products. Examples include a VR tool for implicit bias training for medical practitioners that promises ‘simulated experiences’ (疑似体験, giji taiken) of disabled people, and a VR vocational coaching tool that teaches disabled people social scripts in professional settings. 1 This article cautions against such stifling and one-dimensional approaches to disability and instead offers more expansive and transformative VR usage based on the creative and pedagogical practices authors engage with. These include a VR co-creation approach which revolves around disabled content creators and developers who forge disability-centered community spaces, and a VR intersectional education approach which invites students – regardless of their disability status – to identify their interrelated struggles in an ableist, cisheteronormative, and patriarchal society and realize their political responsibility for nurturing inclusivity with disabled community members.

            2. What Led to the VR Boom: A Brief History of Accessibility Activism in Japan

            To better understand why many have started to adopt, or characterize, VR as a preferred vehicle for identifying and resolving barriers to full social participation in Japan, a brief reflection on the nation’s history of accessibility is in order. Like other countries, Japan has a complex history of accessibility, which might be meaningfully examined – especially from the perspectives of diverse demographics of disabled people at different moments. Indeed, experts such as Hayashi Reiko, Okuhira Masako, Nakanishi Shōji, and Dennis Frost have done much to illustrate the experiences of disabled individuals and disability movements in Japan (Hayashi and Okuhira, 2001; Nakanishi, 2014; and Frost, 2021). Building on such analyses, we trace a recent trajectory of activism for accessibility in this section to frame how VR projects have come to be seen as a tool for disability inclusion.

            2.1 Barrier-Free Transportation (the 2000s)

            In the year 2000, after decades of advocacy for accessibility by disabled activists and allies – including, but not limited to, feminists, older people, parents with small children, and other groups – Japanese government officials promulgated the Barrier-Free Transportation Law (Bookman, 2023). Building on previous legislation like the Heart Building Law (1994), which recommended, but did not require, operators of public facilities to install ramps, elevators, and other “barrier-free” features, the new law mandated access to transport hubs and regulated subsidies for reconstruction projects. As beneficiaries began to use remodeled train stations and ride redesigned buses, they highlighted the need for additional “barrier-free” features at their destinations: for instance, in schools, hospitals, department stores, government buildings, entertainment venues, and other spaces of everyday life. Thanks in part to their advocacy, authorities passed the New Barrier-Free Law in 2006, expanding the scope of state projects to include public parks, roads, and related facilities (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport et al., 2006).

            As Kawauchi Yoshihiko has argued, the creation of the New Barrier-Free Law was a step in the right direction but not sufficient, however, to fix many of the access issues faced by disabled persons (Kawauchi, 2021). Part of the problem was tied to the costs of renovating existing facilities, which often led owners of those facilities to install “barrier-free” features in remote areas to save money; elevators, for instance, were often set up at the far end of train stations to preserve the flow of traffic. Such displacement had a significant impact on the usability of newly created “barrier-free” features, as did a lack of awareness about prioritizing certain groups of people and inadequate training of staff. Indeed, as Carolyn Stevens has shown, disabled individuals in Japan often encountered significant travel delays and difficulties during the late 2000s because of inaccessible “barrier-free” features (Stevens, 2007). Such disruptions were inconvenient but became deadly in the 3/11 “triple disaster”.

            2.2 The Triple Disaster (2011)

            The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that occurred in Japan on 11 March 2011, were a wake-up call for the nation’s residents regarding remaining barriers in the built environment. Many disabled and old people in need of physical assistance were left behind during the evacuation process, and those who could make it to shelters had to grapple with a lack of “barrier-free” features. In the days after the disaster, some individuals struggled to secure food, water, and other supplies as they could not navigate stores and relief centers as efficiently as their non-disabled counterparts. Fujii Katsunori and other activists for accessibility have documented how such difficulties affected diverse groups of disabled evacuees, leading some to physically and psychologically deteriorate (Fujii, 2015). While demographers continue to debate the definition of deaths linked to the tragic series of events (i.e. drowning, physical trauma, and stress-born illnesses), investigations by Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) and other public media outlets in Japan indicate that mortality rates for disabled individuals were exceedingly high (NHK Haatonetto, 2012). Consider the results of a recently published survey from Kyodo News in 2020, which suggests that disabled people disproportionally accounted for approximately 25% of all fatalities connected to the triple disaster (Kyodo, 2020). As activists shared the experiences of disabled evacuees with local and global audiences after 3/11, Japanese policy makers faced significant criticisms from domestic and international stakeholders for their failure to adequately assist some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Those criticisms helped to advance ongoing policy reform processes, including ratification of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

            2.3 The CRPD and Its Impacts (20022013)

            Japan’s involvement with the CRPD arguably began in 2002 at the Sixth Disabled Peoples’ International World Congress in Sapporo, when local accessibility activists joined their global counterparts in declaring that the UN must introduce a legal framework to prevent discrimination (Disabled Peoples’ International, 2002). Shortly after the conference, leaders of Japanese disability organizations partnered with overseas advocates and members of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to draft an early version of the CRPD, which was presented to the General Assembly in 2003. After three years of significant negotiation, revision, and debate, the draft was eventually adopted in 2006 (Nihon shōgai fōramu, 2013). As media outlets across the world celebrated the first human rights treaty of the 21st century, Japanese disability activists redoubled their efforts to convince politicians to pass anti-discrimination policies. Their protests were amplified by a string of scandals tied to the promulgation of the Independence Support Act for Persons with Disabilities in 2005, which tried to democratize disability welfare in Japan by requiring all disabled persons to pay a 10% blanket deductible for their welfare services and care. Although well-intentioned, the Act accidentally impoverished many severely disabled people who were predisposed to high expenses but seldom able to pay due to a lack of employment opportunities, leading some to sue the Japanese government for violating their constitutionally mandated rights (Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, 2010). In the face of growing domestic and international pressure, Japan signed the CRPD in 2007 to demonstrate their commitments towards ratification (Nagase, 2008; Kawashima and Higashi, 2008).

            To determine what steps were necessary to ratify the CRPD, the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare convened a special investigative committee during the spring of 2008. The efforts of that committee later informed those of the Headquarters for Promoting Reforms to the Disability System, which was established after the Democratic Party of Japan took control of the Diet in 2009. Ultimately, the Headquarters introduced a three-pronged strategy for preparing Japan to ratify the CRPD, which involved revising the Basic Act for Persons with Disabilities in 2011 and developing two new laws: namely, the Comprehensive Welfare Law for Persons with Disabilities in 2012 and the Law for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities in 2013. After passing those laws and revisions, Japan ratified the CRPD in 2014 (Arrington and Moon, 2020). By creating new legal frameworks, officials aimed to resolve many accessibility problems. However, they still needed a practical vehicle to incentivize implementation of those frameworks, raise awareness among stakeholders in the public and private sectors, and encourage accountability. Japan’s successful bid for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2013 would serve that purpose well by providing policy makers a platform to promote inclusion projects.

            2.4 Tokyo Paralympics (20132021)

            Local authorities began to plan inclusion projects shortly after the Games’ announcement. As a first step, they established an Accessibility Council in 2014 to develop guidelines to eliminate barriers to participation in the Games, and a Universal Design Inter-Ministerial Council in 2016 to investigate the necessity of enacting domestic policy and legislative reforms around accessibility (Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, 2017; Universal-Design Inter-ministerial Council, 2017). The councils, which consisted of activists, government officials, and practitioners in various fields, heavily advocated for two kinds of projects: 1) “hard” upgrades to the built environment; and 2) “soft” educational initiatives to reveal barriers to otherwise unaware members of the public. Architects, engineers, and other technical experts helped to facilitate “hard” upgrades by installing “barrier-free” features in department stores, tourist sites, and buildings like the National Stadium (JR East, 2016; Tokyo Metro Company, 2016; DPI Japan, 2019). Meanwhile, educators and entrepreneurs emphasized the value of those “hard” upgrades by arranging “soft” awareness-raising activities such as simulation exercises and data-sharing sessions (Ishizuka, 2016; McKirdy, 2018). Collectively, such advocates fueled shifts in consciousness about disability among stakeholders in multiple sectors of society, and their efforts were often celebrated as “successes” by media outlets (Kyodo, 2018; Valuable 500, 2021). However, the efficacy of their work was constrained by a scarcity of human and material resources as well as awareness issues, such that some demographics of disabled persons were ultimately excluded from their projects (Bookman and Arrington, 2023). It was in this context that VR projects aimed at improving inclusivity began to proliferate.

            Facilitated in part by technological advancements and marketing schemes in the late 2010s that made VR headsets and related hardware more affordable, the “VR Boom”, in theory, allowed interested parties to address both “hard” and “soft” aspects of accessibility at the same time. Barriers in the built environment could be mapped out via virtual walkthroughs or entirely avoided by providing access to education, employment, entertainment, and healthcare through telepresence. Meanwhile, stakeholders could also work to raise awareness about obstacles to social participation by using VR devices to conduct implicit bias trainings, simulation exercises, and similar seminars (Ichikari and Kurata, 2016; Adventure World, 2020; Tokyo Shimbun, 2021). Officials and affiliates of the Paralympics also conceptualized VR as an “uplifting” tool for spectators to “step into the hearts and minds” of Paralympic athletes. Meta (then Facebook), for example, “aim[ed] to change perceptions of disability through VR” with its “RAW” program – a spatial audio, VR, and immersive web application – in collaboration with the International Paralympics Committee (Meta Quest, 2021). The Meta Quest application consisted mostly of computer-generated wireframe visuals and voice-over narration with some accessibility options. It must be noted, however, and as Paul Roquet has suggested, the “VR Boom” promised many rewards, but also came with risks as it often led participants to emphasize the needs of some disabled demographics over others (Roquet, 2022). Given the Meta Quest’s missing features such as options for hearing impairment, and the subtitle toggle being placed separately from the accessibility menu and with customization features, the program is at best incomplete. This also points to the patterns we observe in a common usage of VR – disability simulations – where disability is often reduced to a static, one-dimensional experience.

            3. The VR Boom and Its Limiting Views on Disability

            Disability simulations are often called “experiences” (体験, taiken) or “simulated experiences” (疑似体験, giji taiken), and they have recently gained popularity in Japan as a way to improve social perception of disabled populations. As a variety of social and political actors have sought to use the technical affordances of VR to “shift mindsets” that non-disabled people might have toward disabled populations, disability simulations are becoming a particular genre of commodity that capitalizes on the desire of non-disabled people to instantly understand disability.

            3.1 “VR Dementia”

            One such example is “VR Dementia” (VR 認知症, VR ninchishō) developed by the medical devices corporation SILVER WOOD. VR Dementia participants don a headset and watch a 360-degree video featuring pulsing lights, unclear sounds, and other visual and acoustic stimuli meant to simulate the experience of people with dementia. Just as SILVER WOOD’s larger “VR Angle Shift” series promises a “firsthand experience of the other”, VR Dementia developers note that the experience is meant to help nurses “stand in the patient’s shoes” to help them care for their patients better (SILVER WOOD). 2 Key members of the VR Dementia development team, like Shimogawara Tadamichi, express hope that the VR experience can serve a broader purpose to help connect with patients’ “unease and disorientation” and to “understand that people with dementia are fundamentally connected to and the same as all of us from a human point of view” (Shimogawara, 2019). In Shimogawara’s conception, VR Dementia is a tool from which to increase our “human power” (人間力, ningen-ryoku), referring to the ability of those without dementia to feel empathy for and connectedness to those with dementia, or to better recognize humanity of those with dementia (Shimogawara, 2019).

            SILVER WOOD is but one player in a sea of corporate, educational, and government initiatives that aim to use VR applications to simulate mental and sensory disability, usually by playing a pre-recorded video with a variety of effects overlaid on top (for a typical example, see Kawasaki Frontale Official, 2020). These projects typically employ language that suggests a “shift” of viewpoints, evoking both the mind and the sense of sight. Such projects operate under the assumption that these “experiences”, powered by immersive audio and video, can more powerfully shift mindsets than other rhetorical or technical tools previously developed. Project developers may be satisfied, for example, when participants report changed or new feelings toward the disability they just “experienced”, such as a young boy in an NHK report who, after going through a program called Autism VR, says that “If somebody were like that in class, I would want to help them” (Ippan shadanhōjin hattatsu shōgai shien adobaizaa kyōkai, 2019). It is unclear, however, how Autism VR or related simulations give such respondents practical tools to “help” classmates who are undergoing sensory disruptions. Simply fostering the desire to “help” may be the end goal of these activities.

            VR experiences of this variety – despite how they may be marketed as novelties – are closely related to the earlier forms of disability “simulations” that have participants stroll through campuses in wheelchairs or walk with blindfolds. Although VR proponents promise that the technical affordances of VR represent something fundamentally new in how people may relate to different disabilities, participants in those experiences are doing little more than watching non-interactive videos and being asked to report their feelings afterward. In his account of a phenomenology of impairment, Jonathan Sterne notes that “one of the ironic results of disability simulations is that they produce too much stability in accounts of experience – ‘this is how it really works’ – because [developers] have not spent enough time to acquire the variety of experiences that come from living with an impairment or disability” (Sterne, 2022, 14). Indeed, the non-interactivity and the prescribed, static experiences of these disability VR experiences point to their inherent limitations and disconnections from dynamic expressions of disability-centered experiences and community building. Further, it is likely that many applications that claim to increase “empathy” instead reinscribe discriminatory attitudes in more pernicious forms (Bollmer, 2017). If the lack of non-interactivity is what makes disability simulations limiting, what about VR experiences in which users have choices and can affect the outcomes of their virtual world?

            3.2 “Emou: Social Skills Training VR”

            Here, too, we run into inherent limitations. Consider “Emou”, a subscription-based product offered by Jolly Good Inc.’s social services VR platform called JOLLYGOOD+, designed to offer “social skills training” for users with neurodiverse statuses. Choosing between different scenarios in a classroom setting, the user experiences video recordings of school-age children and is taught on topics ranging from self-introductions to more complex scenarios, such as how to identify discrepancies between the content of conversation and speakers’ facial expressions (Jolly Good Inc., 2021; Jolly Good Inc., “Emou 3 kagetsu muryō kyanpeen”). Unlike VR Dementia, Emou does not claim to address a specific disability, but rather a broader array of social and mental statuses under terms like “mental illness” and “temporarily unemployed people”, tying together disability with other undesirable traits associated with lack of social productivity (Jolly Good Inc., 2021). Nonetheless, Emou’s marketing and content make it clear that Emou is to be deployed on persons who could use “training” and rehabilitation to navigate social situations in acceptable ways.

            The training in question, however, is limited to multiple-choice selections, with “correct” and “incorrect” answers being denoted to the users. Although perhaps helpful to some users, such a concrete delineation of emotional experience as Emou promises invokes similar, controversial previous attempts and current projects to use “emotion data” for a wide variety of computational applications (Nagy, 2022, 2). Jeff Nagy warns, in the case of autism research, how researchers have transformed user data “to an extractible corporate asset […] show[ing] how disability can itself be constitutive of new forms of AI and big data-based surveillance” (Nagy, 2022, 2). As a subscription service, applications like Emou can continuously gather user data as they refresh the content with an increasing array of modules. This data can be both external (as in tracing the employment status of its users) as well as internal to the applications themselves (as in recording bodily movement, multiple answer choices, and other biological and user data). This data can then be repurposed into not only public facing presentations to prove the “effectiveness” of the programs, but also sold to or shared with private partners as well as third parties for corporate and organizational purposes. It is not clear to what extent Jolly Good Inc. in particular is engaging in these activities, but as Nagy demonstrates, it is common for corporate actors to conceptualize user data as resources to be used to further the development of such projects.

            Even as corporations collect a diverse array of data to, in theory, diversify the nature of their products, applications like Emou inevitably prescribe a literal point-of-view in their videos. Videos aimed toward children position the camera to the floor in a classroom crowded with desks, while others position the camera up higher in closed office room settings. These gestures are inclusive as much as they are exclusive: there is no accounting for diverse bodies and positionalities beyond that of a broad demographic swath – what Aimi Hamraie calls a “normate template” (Hamraie, 2017). Users cannot adjust their bodily presentation, and the “training” of social skills highlights other historical exclusions in the designing of bodily possibilities of expressions coded into VR software, which can limit modes of expressions typically associated with autism and other neurodiverse states (echolaliachamber, 2017). Products such as Emou suggest how VR can be rendered as a tool to assimilate disabled people into a largely ableist society in the name of inclusion, and by establishing and concretizing computationally produced norms.

            4. An Alternative: VR Co-Creation

            In contrast to the disability simulation programs, where we find “participatory experiences” for non-disabled users or for imagined disabled people, there are VR applications and practices that center on disability communities’ perspectives. In this section, we will discuss how communities occupy virtual spaces that 1) are already built, 2) are “modded” from other applications or sources, and 3) are created from the ground-up by disabled creators and community builders. We call these activities a form of “co-creation”, since they often incorporate diverse voices within a community into the design process.

            4.1 “VRChat” and Related Applications

            First, disabled communities can congregate in spaces that have already been designed. One example would be in the world of VRChat and related virtual worlds. Within Japanese online commentary sites, it is a common refrain that VRChat serves as an attractive space for people on the autism spectrum (Manutafu, 2019; NHK Haatonetto, 2019). In community-driven VR spaces, norms can be different from those of non-virtual spaces; people who find verbal expression challenging, for example, may better thrive in spaces where it is more acceptable to express oneself through specific forms of avatar body language that the space affords. Some users also run other software programs, such as voice recognition software that replaces the user’s spoken words with an automated voice, so that they can speak in the VR world on different parameters (Manutafu, 2019). Although there is a delay introduced in conversation from such software, one writer, for example, commented on the benefit of this particular pace of communication: “It takes me some time to turn my thoughts into language, so [the lag] is useful in helping me finish conversations without a sense of burden” (Manutafu, 2019). By using a mixture of inclusive community norms built around the affordances of VR and other external software, users can cultivate the kind of social environment that works best for them. Here, we may see a situation in which this mixture of cultural norms and technical affordances allows for an environment in which users can take and use their time and bodies in ways they choose – foregrounding what disability theorists call “crip time”. In this sense, users can be empowered to take their crip time into their own control (McRuer, 2018).

            Many disabled users also use hardware peripherals common to VR sets like hand controllers to create sign language-centric virtual spaces. In these communities, like the ones discussed above, norms and guidelines may help some users feel more comfortable interacting with friends and strangers in the VR context compared to other contexts. Although until recently some Deaf users have avoided VR spaces due to the audio-centric nature of many communities, some Japanese Sign Language signers have responded by trying to create spaces where people can learn sign language in the VR environment (Mitsuami, 2020). Deaf-centered communities are still relatively recent, and native signers may have different experiences from those who learn to sign on the platform. For example, some controllers, such as those of the Meta Quest 2, introduce limitations to what signs can be used, thus necessitating work-arounds in some cases (Yuriika, 2022; VRChat no ima wo otodoke baacharu raifu magajin, 2020). While those who learn to sign virtually may not notice or mind these limitations, some native signers may have different reactions and responses. It remains to be seen how VR sign language communities will emerge and organize themselves in the years to come.

            4.2 Modifications of “The Legend of Zelda”, “Pokémon”, and Other Video Games

            Despite VRChat and related platforms serving as a useful place from which to organize inclusive communities, because such spaces have already been built to parameters in which accessibility is not a priority – if it is even considered at all – congregating in these spaces poses inherent limitations that some communities may not wish to contend with. Instead of pre-configured applications and websites, disabled developers can and have been working on modifying such applications when possible. One active subset that is emerging as a site of community-making is videogame “modding”. In addition to experiments with “immersive existences” in previously constructed gameworlds – like VR-enabled versions of older games such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) – game “mods” are versions of games in which parameters have been added, deleted, shuffled, or otherwise made different from the original software. This enables a “game-body” – to use Japanese disability studies scholar Andrew Campana’s term – “that is more flexible and more open to non-normative configurations” (Campana, 2022, 164). 3 Modders may, for example, create and insert accessibility options in games that had little to no options before, enable previously single-player gameworlds as sites for massive multiplayer online hubs, or may simply “remix” games for a greater variety of entertainment. These mods increase community building possibilities, such as seen in a popular modding format of Pokémon games where the map of the game world is shuffled from its normal configuration and two players race to complete the game first. Similar competitions can also be found in the disabled e-sports community, and, with community advocates incentivizing corporations to produce and sometimes co-design more accessible controller input options, the disabled e-sports and game modding scene will likely grow in the near future (Izumi, 2019; “Shōgaisha x e-supōtsu no kanōsei to ha”). Game modding may be particularly attractive as a form of crip resistance, given that, in the words of Campana, “the act of gameplay itself is the arrangement of enablings and disablings: the videogame medium foregrounds, spectacularizes, and mobilizes embodiment and control as its foremost tools of expression” (Campana, 2022, 157).

            4.3 “Audible Mapper” Plus New Development Tools

            Finally, moving beyond modding existing games or applications, community leaders and creatives can elect to build their own VR games, applications, and development tools from scratch. Of course, such software has existed before VR applications, including long-standing game development tools like Audible Mapper, which are designed for blind and low-vision developers (Campana, 2022). Although as of this writing, there are no widespread tools meant for disabled developers in the VR space, it is possible to use non-VR specific applications to develop software that can then be integrated into VR and immersive audio contexts, such as using Audible Mapper to develop an immersive audio game (which can also have visuals) that is compatible with a VR headset.

            Although in this section we have presented the use of existing applications, modding applications, and building applications separately, these three types of activities exist side-by-side in real-use cases, and it is still early days for disability-centered VR communities. As communities continue to advocate for and build more accessible software and hardware, we will likely continue to see a greater number of participatory experiences and opportunities built by and for disabled communities. In contrast to the “disability simulations” discussed above, these co-created experiences can better foster opportunities to create more inclusive online spaces, which may then be a springboard for furthering disability advocacy using VR headsets.

            5. Teaching the Alternative and Beyond: Intersectional Disability Studies via VR

            Thus far, we have discussed two kinds of VR programs. On one hand, we have popular programs designed for non-disabled medical practitioners or programs developed for disabled people for rehabilitation purposes. On the other hand are the emerging programs that are co-created by disabled community members. These cases exemplify different conceptions of disability. The first conception shares characteristics with the medical model and can be seen in VR programs where disability is portrayed as a concrete impairment that can be (at least partially) simulated. These programs attempt to provoke a response for the general user that helps them better “appreciate” the disability in question, although its effects are likely to be grounded in fear of the disability or a problematic sympathy for the disability, both of which can easily marginalize the personhood of people with the disability in question. The other conception we have discussed leans more toward the political/relational model of disability, which centers on disabled people’s political agency (Kafer, 2013; Newman-Griffis et al., 2023).

            In a way, our approach to classify existing usage of VR in this manner has thus far assumed a disabled-non-disabled dyad, where the question of agency concerns either that of disabled people or non-disabled people. In this section, we will showcase a more expansive VR framework for disability activism that could go beyond the binary. This framework is drawn from the use of VR in an undergraduate disability studies class in Tokyo, led by Mark Bookman, one of the authors of this article.

            Bookman mobilized his personal experiences and professional expertise as a motorized wheelchair user and historian of disability to engage students in conversations about VR’s potentials and pitfalls for improving both “hard” and “soft” dimensions of accessibility for diverse populations. His lessons encouraged students with various backgrounds and disability status to investigate exclusive elements of hardware and software design through participatory exploration and aimed to foster intersectional understandings of barriers in built environments, education, employment, entertainment, and medical systems via group work. While Bookman’s instructional approach represents but one of many possible methods, it exemplifies challenges and rewards associated with using VR as a tool for teaching historical and contemporary disability activism in Japanese contexts. Below we detail Bookman’s six-step lesson plan for your perusal, and in hopes of your adaptation depending on your local educational contexts. Bookman’s practice of using VR in classroom settings was split into the following six sequential steps: 1) outlining a history of barriers to accessibility that have led stakeholders to pursue VR projects; 2) isolating obstacles that prevented disabled individuals from obtaining and controlling VR hardware; 3) identifying how technical literacy and related requirements created problems for VR software users; 4) organizing group exercises that fueled dialogues about difficulties inside digital environments; 5) inviting reflections on the relationship between issues encountered in “VR” and “the real world”; and 6) reevaluating trajectories and thinking together about intersectional solutions, to help build a more inclusive society. Each step involved reading scholarly literature and firsthand accounts from academics and activists as well as discursive interventions and practical demonstrations from participants in the course, all of whom were asked to share their perspectives. We hope the annotated course design below provides an idea for teaching the implications of VR hypes as they pertain to disability studies and why we wish to work toward intersectional approach when envisioning an inclusive society for disabled community members.

            Table 1

            Bookman’s Six-Step Lesson Plan

            Table description: A table with two columns. The left column is labeled ‘Steps’ and the right column is labeled ‘Actions.’ Under the ‘Steps’ header are the numbers 1 – 6 for each row. The table reads, ‘1: Historicize VR Hypes,’ ‘2: Investigate VR Hardware Accessibility,’ ‘3: Investigate VR Software Accessibility,’ ‘4: Navigate VR Space,’ ‘5: Reflect on VR Experiences,’ and ‘6: Project a More Inclusive Society.’

            5.1 Historicize VR Hypes (Step 1)

            By outlining the history discussed in the above “A Brief History of Accessibility Activism in Japan” and “The VR Boom and Its Limiting Views on Disability” sections of this article, Bookman placed VR in a social and political context for students. This contextualizing prepared students to engage with VR not just as a form of technology but also one intimately connected with pre-existing ideologies about disability, which often represents a pathological and medical gaze toward the impaired body.

            5.2 Investigate VR Hardware Accessibility (Step 2)

            Historical context then gives way to physical investigation. Journalists such as Kaitlin Phillips and Kawanabe Asuka have noted that despite rhetoric of VR democratizing access to new frontiers, many disabled individuals – and, notably, individuals with non-male genders – remain unable to effectively use headsets and peripherals due to significant physical and cognitive differences many VR headsets overlook (Phillips, 2020; Kawanabe, 2021; Mason, 2016). To demonstrate this point, Bookman showcased for students how his inability to stand and raise his arms above shoulder height prevented him from playing games such as Beat Saber and utilizing productivity applications like Workrooms on a Meta Quest device. Drawing on research from experts like Jennifer Robertson and Miura Yamato, Bookman explained that his exclusion was likely the result of budget constraints, awareness issues, and other problems, which might be mitigated to some extent through collaboration and codesign with VR developers (Robertson, 2018; Miura, 2019). Bookman then asked his students to consider how their identities – figured in terms such as age, race, class, gender, and disability status – may lead industry innovators to classify them to be (or not to be) target demographics and probable consumers for new products. Could insights born out of students’ embodied and intimate experiences add to ongoing discussions about how to construct inclusive VR hardware? For Bookman, the answer was a resounding yes.

            5.3 Investigate VR Software Accessibility (Step 3)

            Moving on from critiques of VR headsets, peripherals, and related technologies, Bookman then moved onto to Step 3, inviting students to consider how software mechanics could similarly create barriers. Citing scholarship by inclusion consultants who specialize in VR such as Thomas Logan, Bookman suggested that many VR applications demanded a high degree of technical literacy and frequently lacked accessibility features like captions, audio descriptions, and color contrast options (Logan, 2021). Furthermore, developers often presumed that users had great capacities for learning, memorization, and reproduction of inputs when designing apps for work, play, and other activities. Such embedded prejudices and biases prevented some disabled people from using VR programs, including, ironically, those engineered to help empower and raise awareness about their impairments (Virtual Reality Angle Shift, 2020; Developmental Disorder Adviser Support Association, 2022). Bookman then showcased how, to combat systemic exclusion, disenfranchised individuals forged communities and designed their own applications in collaboration with computer scientists such as inventing mods to enable a new mode of VR-specific sign-language communication (Bayliss, 2019). By framing such dynamics for his students, Bookman called for deliberate reflection on the ways that their intersecting identities may shape app design and coalition-building processes.

            5.4 Navigate VR Space (Step 4)

            Having discussed some of the “ins and outs” of VR hardware and software development, Bookman divided his class into groups to examine the inclusive imaginaries of apps like VRChat. Deploying digital humanities methods rooted in disability justice from scholars like Aimi Hamraie alongside lessons learned from his own experiences with crowdsourced accessibility mapping projects, Bookman asked each group of students to traverse virtual worlds and collectively identify barriers (Hamraie, 2018; Accessibility Mapping Project at the University of Pennsylvania, 2017). Some traveled across school settings, tracing the presence or absence of “barrier-free” architectural features such as braille signage and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Others explored employment environments, highlighting how workspaces incorporated or avoided assistive technologies, adjusted business practices, and other accommodations for disabled persons. Regardless of destination, Bookman encouraged each student to draw upon their own identities and lived experiences, to the extent that they were comfortable, to reveal obstacles that other group members might overlook. Together, the students compiled a database of intersectional impediments inside virtual ecosystems which accounted for access to various facilities and services like lactation spaces and prayer rooms. After completing their audits, Bookman asked each student to reflect on their activities in relation to the “real world”. What could accessibility mapping in VR tell them about local communities?

            5.5 Reflect on VR Experiences (Step 5)

            Step 5 is meant to help students unpack the applications and constraints of their newly constructed archive. To that end, Bookman introduced works from welfare experts and accessibility activists about similar projects. For example, a study by Miura Takahiro, Michitaka Hirose, and several other specialists found how the quality and quantity of data collected via crowdsourcing platforms was often restricted by technological limitations and contributor biases that reduced relevance for users (Miura et al., 2016). Additional articles by Arielle Silverman, Michelle Nario-Redmond, Dobromir Gospodinov, and Angela Cobb also helped to clarify that “simulations” of disabled experiences were highly context-dependent, and any lessons learned could not easily be generalized (Silverman, 2017; Nario-Remond, Gospodinov, and Cobb, 2017). Despite the dangers of direct 1-to-1 comparisons and assumptions regarding the “true” nature of barriers to accessibility, Bookman still emphasized that students view their participatory exercises as a chance to recognize and reflect on just how little they knew about others’ perspectives and challenges in everyday life. If anything, Bookman argued, explorations with VR demonstrated how important it was to establish an equitable environment in which marginalized individuals could share otherwise untold stories and perspectives.

            5.6 Project a More Inclusive Society (Step 6)

            Bookman’s final call to action for his students invited critical (re)examination of the history of activism for accessibility in Japan as related to the development of VR (covered in the first section of this paper). Here are some of the questions students entertained: Which sets of stakeholders were involved in the development and dissemination of VR in Japan? What social, political, economic, and cultural factors had allowed them to achieve their positions? How did their decision-making processes affect disabled persons with diverse bodies and minds? And if anyone was in any way excluded from their projects, what could be done to integrate them? With these questions, Bookman emphasized that addressing them might not only improve accessibility in Japan for disabled demographics, but also for women, children, older persons, and others with similar needs. Indeed, students could use their own identities to start dialogues about inclusion.

            6. Implications of Putting VR to Intersectional Disability Activism in Japan

            Let us now further examine the implications of using VR as a tool for teaching disability activism in theoretical terms. In choosing to use VR as a pedagogical tool, we are not only refuting an assimilatory strain of popular usage of VR for disability related simulation and education, but also projecting how we want disability justice discourse and the corresponding “barrier-free” society to evolve in Japan by centering a critical coalition based on political awareness.

            6.1 Redefining Kinship

            Bookman’s VR exercise invites students to draw from their lived experiences to consider how some of their challenges might overlap with people across the gender, race, class, and disability status spectrum. In so doing, we first encourage students to develop a capacious definition of kinship (Burch, 2014; Erevelles, 2011; Nielsen, 2018; Kafer, 2019) that transcends its current, stifling definition based on biological relations, especially as it is conceived of in Japan. As Mark Bookman and others have articulated elsewhere, disabled people in Japan are often structurally excluded from the public space in part because the government has long expected their family members to provide care (Nakanishi, 2014; Bookman, 2023). Overwhelmed by such responsibility imposed by society, many resort to the institutionalization of disabled family members, despite the reports of abuse and neglect in many such institutions. To make things worse, such a familial obligation model has long characterized disabled people as passive recipients of care, exacerbating the fraught notion that they are a burden to their families and to society at large (Hayashi and Okuhira, 2001; Nakanishi, 2014). As one method of countering this model, students in Bookman’s classroom are tasked not only to articulate their relation to a disabling built environment but also in a context where blood relations are irrelevant when considering who ought to work towards “barrier-free” society.

            6.2 Coalition Building

            Once students witness how everyone is at risk of marginalization depending on the design of a built environment, it provides an opening for them to further dwell on the interconnectedness of their challenges as a locale for envisioning solutions. This approach is largely informed by the concept of tōjisha shuken (当事者主権), an analytical framework devised by disability rights advocate Shoji Nakanishi and feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno (Nakanishi and Ueno, 2003). Roughly translated as “rights defined by the person with firsthand accounts”, tōjisha shuken is reminiscent of the disability rights slogan “nothing about us without us” and centers on the rights and agency of disabled people. The term tōjisha (当事者), or “person with firsthand accounts”, has also been widely adapted by LGBTQIA+ community members in Japan. It therefore serves our desire to – in the same vein of disability scholar Alison Kafer – queer the notion of kinship (Kafer, 2013) while establishing a coalitional approach to tackle the structural discrimination against diverse disability communities in Japan.

            The coalitional approach led by Ueno and Nakanishi invites students to witness how to instrumentalize the interconnectedness of their struggles. For instance, Ueno and Nakanishi detail how care work for disabled family members in Japan has been disproportionality undertaken by women as part of their traditional domestic responsibilities, barring both women and their disabled family members from social participation (Nakanishi and Ueno, 2003; Ueno, 2011). From this vantage point, envisioning an inclusive Japanese society means focusing on a structural change that emerges out of challenges experienced by both disabled persons and women who have been subject to patriarchal norms. More generally, the coalitional framework steers students away from the charity mentality (Shapiro, 1994) and tasks them to define their positionality, as well as possible complacency, with the exclusionary built environment and its underlying assumptions about social participation.

            Furthermore, by foregrounding our VR pedagogy with queer epistemologies, we seek to teach students the dual risk of appropriating and/or essentializing political identities. As Alison Kafer and Robert McRuer note, the social model of disability – especially when it is characterized as an opposing model to the medical and more individualized model of disability – risks relativizing what it means to be disabled to such a degree that it could solicit some non-disabled people to appropriate the hard-won political identities of disabled people (McRuer, 2006; Kafer, 2013). Similarly, Ueno reports early criticisms she received concerning the danger of tōjisha inflation –a situation where everybody claims to be a person with equally pressing firsthand accounts – which could gloss over the existing inequity that disproportionally affects disabled communities (Ueno, 2011). In order to finetune tōjisha as an analytical framework for disability justice, Ueno likens the process of articulating one’s positionality to that of coming out as gay in a society which assumes heterosexual normativity. Drawing from a queer studies scholar Shane Phelan’s work on the process of “(be)coming out” (Phelan, 1993), Ueno further explains tōjisha in the context of disability justice. According to Ueno, tōjisha is not about who a person is but about whom they become as they reject what McRuer calls “compulsory able-bodiedness”, reclaim disability status, and assert their rights to self-determination (McRuer, 2006; Ueno, 2011; Nakanishi, 2014). Unfortunately, Ueno’s English translation of tōjisha shuken (“individual autonomy”) has long suppressed – however inadvertently – its explicitly queer origin. By resurfacing its queer epistemology, we could suggest to our students that it is not an accident that both LGBTQIA+ and disability justice communities in Japan have embraced the term tōjisha. Further, students should understand that the VR positionality exercise described above strives to provide a safe space for all to come out as tōjisha, and to encourage them to make a political commitment to address structural exclusion. In other words, the exercise invites students to measure their relation to able-bodied normativity and other forms of marginalization and to utilize their position when envisioning an inclusive society with disabled community members.

            6.3 Resisting the VR Hypes

            In addition to inviting students to queer their definition of kinship and to test the coalition model as their disability justice practice, we teach students critical literacy to understand the allure and danger of VR as a tool. For example, a non-wheelchair user can choose an avatar who is a wheelchair user to navigate a VR environment. The danger of choosing an avatar that diverges from students’ own identities is to risk what media studies scholar Lisa Nakamura calls “identity tourism” (Nakamura, 2002). As Nakamura notes, cyberspace has always offered the illusion that it allows us to transcend racism, sexism, classicism, and, we would add, ableism because participants could take on whatever identities they wish with their avatars – either to “pass” as someone else or to fulfill their fantasy about the othered identities (Nakamura, 2002). As Nakamura notes, such identity tourism is often afforded by those who have access to cyberspace for leisure, work, and now education. It is also upheld by the idea that people’s perception can be disembodied – something disability studies scholars have resisted with the coinage of “bodymind” to counter the underestimation of lived experiences and expertise of disabled persons (Price, 2015). Without the critical literacy to interpret the experience in cyberspace, our students might overlook how their assessment of a digitally built environment is inherently mediated through their bodymind. As design theorist Sasha Costanza-Chock and disability scholars Liz Jackson, Alex Haagaard, and Rua Williams warn, such false impressions might lead to centering, let alone reproducing, able-bodied people’s perspectives that further coerce disabled people to conform to ableist social conventions (Costanza-Chock, 2020; Jackson et al., 2022). To caution students not to fall prey to a naïve interpretation of cyberspace – the illusion of the knowability of others – Bookman’s class offers precise vocabulary for students when analyzing their experience in the digitally built environment, reminding students that their in-class VR exercise is a “participatory experience” and not a “simulation” of navigating a space as another bodymind.

            Equipping students with critical vocabulary to stay vigilant against the allure of VR is necessary but that does not mean there is no fun, as it were, in Bookman’s VR exercise. As a matter of fact, the digitally built environment sometimes offers an inadvertent moment of uncanniness, which in turn compels students to realize that the cyberspace does not mirror or simulate material reality. For example, in a VR space, Bookman’s avatar can slide down a staircase with a wheelchair without sustaining any physical harms. Though seemingly trivial, such a queering moment often serves as just enough of an opening for students to witness how cyberspace is at best apparitional, i.e. a graphic representation of the world that does not adhere to the laws of physics. Bookman’s avatar’s frictionless glide demonstrates what Aimi Hamraie and Kelly Fritsch call, incidentally, “frictional practices of access production” (Fritsch, 2016; Hamraie, 2017; Hamraie and Fritsch, 2019), calling attention to how a piece of technology such as VR can simultaneously reproduce and rupture ableist perspectives. Surely, the invisible ramp superimposed in the cyberspace staircase would be too steep to be safe for a wheelchair user in our non-virtual world. At the same time, it suggests how a wheelchair user ought to glide around the public space without the hinderance of the built environment. Inviting students to dwell on this moment of conflicting possibilities – a graphic representation of a reality that has a potential to both assert and undo a disabling environment and mindset – is how we are embracing VR as a pedagogical tool, and through our critical play.

            7. Conclusion

            When Kiyoshi Shin characterized the year 2016 as “the dawn of VR era” (VR元年, VR gannen), he anticipated the VR market to be worth 12 trillion yen by the year 2025 (Shin, 2016). The global outbreak of Covid in 2019 and the corresponding, initial social distancing mandates seem to have also amplified general interests in the potential of VR as a tool for social participation. The aforementioned Jolly Good Inc., for instance, promoted their VR vocational training program as a tool to compensate for the lack of in-person workshops at an employment support center for disabled people (Tokyo Shimbun, 2021). They also provided a free VR zoo tour for children in developmental disabilities support facilities in collaboration with a theme park, Adventure World, to alleviate the lock-down-related stress children might be experiencing (Jolly Good Inc., 2020). As of May 2023, the World Health Organization announced that Covid is no longer a public health emergency of international concern, and the world –including Japan – seems to be busy resuming whatever sense of normalcy the global pandemic disrupted (World Health Organization, 2023). Regarding Shin’s predication about the growing business interests in VR, it is only to be hoped that affordances of VR would continue to address the needs and wants of immunocompromised individuals and other disabled persons whose need for remote work and play had largely been neglected since the pre-pandemic times (Mainichi Shimbun, 2021).

            Given that we are at the VR boom crossroads in Japan, we hope our article offers its particular genealogy in relation to historical disability activism, celebration of emerging creative efforts led by disabled people, as well as visions for an intersectional coalition model when projecting, through teaching, a more inclusive society with disabled community members. In particular, we note and caution against an assimilatory strain among popular disability-related simulation programs, and instead encourage VR developers, educators, consumers, and users alike to also consider the implications should we embrace the social, political, and relational models of disability when putting VR to disability rights advocacy efforts. Indeed, we hope our article serves as an introduction to existing and emerging efforts led by disabled developers and content creators who have been modifying and amplifying VR to forge disability-centered community spaces. Additionally, and especially for those who are invested in a multifaceted approach to disability activism, we hope our sample intersectional lesson plan would serve as a case study for coalition building efforts, using VR as a positionality awareness tool for disabled activists and allies alike. We look forward to seeing more VR programs put to disability activism, fostering a more inclusive society for all within and beyond our virtual worlds.

            In Memoriam

            Dr. Mark Ross Bookman (1991 – 2022)

            About one year ago at this time of writing, my dear friend and storied disability activist and scholar Mark passed away suddenly. This Mark is, of course, the same Dr. Bookman who brilliantly ran his classroom at the University of Tokyo with the disability and VR exercises described in this article. Mark’s desire to find a new way of teaching and thinking about disability and society extended well beyond the classroom: he frequently gave guest talks at academic conferences and public events (often at events he initiated in the first place); he founded and was heavily involved in various accessibility initiatives like the Accessibility Mapping Project at the University of Pennsylvania; and he was a well-known accessibility consultant whose advice was always in-demand from public and private entities alike. Mark’s powerful drive to merge scholarly rigor with on-the-ground demand for change continues to inspire so many people – from Japan to the United States and many places in between.

            Mark and I first met as undergraduates who mingled in the same academic conferences in the east coast of the United States. We both earned a Fulbright grant for post-graduation research in Japan from 2014 to 2015, and I vividly remember how in our conversations that would go deep into the night, Mark talked passionately of his dreams of making lasting change, not just by or for himself, but with a far-ranging movement that would profoundly affect every stratum of society. Over the years, as we both passed through the trials and tribulations of graduate school, Mark worked hard, and with great success, to bring his dreams to life. He was a constant source of inspiration for me, and I know I was not alone in this feeling. His passing is an indescribable loss, and he is sorely missed by so many. Please see https://bookmanresearch.com/ for more information on his ideas and impact on the world.

            Frank Mondelli, PhD



            In this article, we use the term “disabled people” based on a social model approach. Additionally, our framing is rooted in the political/relational model of disability that centers on disabled people’s political agency (Kafer, 2013; Newman-Griffis et al, 2023). We supply key Japanese terms with original kanji when they are first mentioned in this article, and where it is appropriate. We do so in hopes of inviting bilingual readers to cross-examine our interpretative translations as well as invoking the corresponding disability studies discourse in Japanese for such readers.


            The original tagline for SILVER WOOD’s ‘VR Angle Shift’ series is “By experiencing other people’s lives in the first-person, your point of view will change” (他人事で見ていたことも一人称で体験するとちがって見えるはず). Other associated projects include Cancer VR, VR Developmental Disability, VR Diversity and Inclusion, and VR Harassment.


            Although Campana was referring to the plot of a classic Japanese role-playing game, his term can easily be applied to game modding, as we do so here.


            All online resources are last accessed on 19 June 2023.

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            Author and article information

            International Journal of Disability and Social Justice
            Pluto Journals
            21 May 2023
            : 4
            : 1
            : 10-33
            [1 ]Tokyo College, University of Tokyo, Japan
            [2 ]University of Delaware, USA
            [3 ]Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore
            Author notes

            Editors’ Note: It is with much sadness that we write this note. The corresponding author of this article was Dr Mark Bookman (1991–2022). Mark passed away in December 2022. The article was taken through the review process by his co-authors Frank Mondelli (to whom any correspondence should be addressed) and Setsuko Yokoyama. Frank has written a tribute to Mark, which we are honored to publish. This can be found at the end of this article. We thank Mark’s father for approving this “In Memoriam” to Mark. | Heng-hao Chang and Angharad Beckett March 2024.

            © Mark Bookman, Frank Mondelli, and Setsuko Yokoyama

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY) 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

            : 11 June 2023
            : 20 October 2023
            Page count
            Pages: 24

            Social & Behavioral Sciences


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