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  Transcending Physicality in Second Life  
Posted 2005-01-29 by Tony Walsh
I was introduced to the philanthropic project Live2Give yesterday, and attended their first public meeting entitled "Surmounting physical disabilities in virtual worlds." A handful of interested Second Life residents were on-hand for this virtual-world gathering, hosted by Live2Give co-founders Lilone* Sandgrain (June-Marie Mahay) and John Prototype (John Lester).

The two-hour discussion was both intriguing and educational, giving newcomers to the project a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes. Live2Give introduces people with debilitating physical conditions to the virtual environment of Second Life. It's a pioneering project that its co-founders believe can free participants from the bonds of physicality.

John Prototype met Lilone Sandgrain in Second Life. "I learned what Lilone was doing...and I was doing similar things, using SL to try and help people with Asperger's," says Prototype, "so we started 'Live2Give' to eventually involve more people dealing with disabilites."

"I never imagined when we began what it would mean to my crew," says Sandgrain, who works with nine disabled people, for whom she acts as an interpreter and self-styled mascot, controlling the avatar Wilde Cunningham on their behalf in an intriguing case of double agency. "Using me as an interface, since i can interpret them, they can say what they want and not feel uncomfortable about how it comes out." It takes ten minutes for Sandgrain to set up each Second Life session for the group, which gathers in front of a large-screen monitor in two or three rows of chairs. This modest arrangement may be augmented in the future with a video projector.

Wilde Cunningham entered Second Life as a male avatar, but has gone through changes since the group has been inworld. Cunningham now alternates between male and female forms every two months, and is currently female. "It's hard on the guys right now," Sandgrain says with a laugh, "we tease them a bit. But being able to design what their avatar looks like is also empowering." One of Sandgrain's crew members has been living with a disfiguration, and has had poor self-esteem. "Now she feels so pretty," says Sandgrain. "She looks at the screen and says over and over how pretty she is, and how that's her."

Sandgrain was pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm and aptitude her crew has displayed in acclimating to Second Life. Wilde Cunningham, whose group of controllers accesses Second Life three to four times weekly for about 45 minutes at a time, has bridged the gap between Second and real life: the group keeps a blog in which they document their actual and virtual experiences. "They now feel they have the meaning they've missed all their lives," Sandgrain reflects. "I was stunned... I thought we'd just play for fun...this has become the single most influential thing they have known in many years."

"In real life," adds Prototype, "they are confined to wheelchairs...unable to do the simplest things. But in Second Life, they can see their thoughts become reality. dreams of building and even just share with the world not only their 'adventures' in SL, but also their stories and thoughts in general. We're hoping that as word spreads about Live2Give, that people with physical disabilities might give SL a try."

The Live2Give project hopes to give residents a chance to meet and greet Wilde Cunningham, and will likely be scheduling some social events in the near future.

* lilone's name has been capitalized for clarity.
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