On 1st September, my virtual disability themed nightclub, Wheelies, celebrates its 8th birthday. The club exists in Secondlife, a virtual world that has millions of residents from around the real world, and it is a place where anything is possible. The first thing to understand about Secondlife is that it not a game, but a virtual environment where people can interact using their avatars. It is used by individuals and organisations for anything you can think of including teaching, conferences, exhibitions, meetings, sport, live music events, virtual dancing and so much more. It is hard to understand Secondlife without visiting it yourself, and it remains a relevantly new concept.
Your avatar is your identity in Secondlife, and while some people choose to make their avatar like their real life selves, many choose to use their avatar to be someone very different, whether that's changing their gender, being an furry animal, or anything they want. I chose to be myself and more importantly use a wheelchair all the time, being the first avatar to do so. What I saw as a natural and automatic decision, shock the virtual world and caused a lot of media interest around the world, because its shattered the idea that Secondlife was just about escapism.
I led a movement of disabled people who 'came out' in Secondlife, to the point there was a healthy market for virtual wheelchairs, now there are hundreds if not thousands if Avatars using wheelchairs. There are also now virtual guide dogs for blind residents who are as cute and useful as real ones. There however remains a healthy divide between disabled people who wish to disclose their disability status in Secondlife, and those who use Secondlife to escape their reality.
The idea for Wheelies was a simple one, many of my friends were setting up nightclubs and therefore I wanted one as a budding entrepreneur. I chose the name Wheelies as tongue in cheek humour, and I wanted the club to be disability themed, and not just for disabled people. By a nightclub I mean somewhere where real DJs plays music our avatars can dance to and often we had live music acts. In the golden days of the club, we had music 30 hours a week from 8 or more DJs. It sounds crazy but it is actually a very enjoyable and therapeutic experience.
When I started the club, it was simply a bit of fun in an internal environment, and I had no idea the impact the club would make on the outside world. It is hard to begin to describe the amount of serious publicity the club received from major media outlets around the world, including CBC News in Canada, and Newsweek International, especially in an era before social media and easier access to the media. The story has been repeatedly told in magazines and websites in places I have not even heard off, and even mentioned in a number of academic books!
Wheelies is a place of fun that has also been an international place of safety for tens of thousands of disabled and non-disabled people around the world. I have primarily paid for the running of the club out of my own pocket, including employing a manager, even when I did not have time to spend time there due to months of work commitments and health issues, because it is something important to me. The club has been there for me during my dark times, and I want it to be there for others, the international resource few people know about.
I think Wheelies has shown me that you never know when a simple idea will capture of the imagination of others and challenges the fabric of society, in a way you did not realise you were doing. It has shown disability can be something positive and that technology like Secondlife can make a big difference in ways no one could have ever imagined.