In “Virtually Accessible,” a short article published in the Spring 2009 issue of Access: The inclusive design journal, Diane Carr reports on protests that erupted in Second Life among deaf and hard-of-hearing users when in 2007 “Second Life’s developers added a feature enabling residents to speak verbally to each other using microphones.” What’s especially interesting about these protests is that they seemed to make visible some assumptions about what it means to be normal — specifically, how “it seemed that voice could become the ‘normal’ way to converse”:

We found deaf protesters being told (by apparently non-disabled people) that by objecting to voice, they were playing the role of victim or martyr. At other times, deaf commentators received “helpful” advice from hearing people about “how to cope” socially in Second Life. In the process of interpreting and responding to protests, hearing contributors to the forums “positioned” themselves, deaf people (and disability generally) in particular ways. Instances such as this are the reason why, when thinking about disability in Second Life, it is important to look at issues of accessibility, but it is also important to take social and cultural factors into account. We need to consider the expectations and assumptions about disability – or any other aspect of identity – that are carried into virtual worlds from our everyday lives.

Carr stops short of offering a critique of mainstream (hearing) society and instead couches her concerns in scare quotes (e.g. so-called “helpful” advice) and non-specific references to “social and cultural factors.” Given “that the voice feature has not changed [Carr’s] Second Life [experiences] very much,” it’s not surprising to find in her article something other than an indictment of dominant culture.

But Carr’s main point — that we must consider social and cultural factors in addition to issues of accessibility — is at the heart of disability studies. To understand those social and cultural factors, especially from a rhetorical perspective, we need to ask how assumptions about ab/normalcy are mediated. How are those assumptions made visible, both discursively and visually? In the case of virtual worlds, we need to ask how norms about seeing, hearing, thinking, and moving are inscribed into interfaces and worked out rhetorically (via some form of communication) among the invested parties. To what extent do these rhetorical interchanges affect access to virtual environments for people with disabilities?