In Second Life I’m able to dance
One man’s search for a “real-life”

I met three people today: Tom Roome, Tom06 Castro, and Tom.

One is Tom Roome, your average 37 year old college student, who can spend hours on his computer, competing in any number of virtual games. He is opinionated, articulate and quick to offer advice on searching for a job and how lack of experience has always been his downfall. Tom loves to dance and socialize. He’s working on his second masters degree and currently a teacher’s assistant in the school of Arts and Technology at The University of Texas at Dallas. Tom’s long-term goal is to secure a permanent teaching position at a university once he completes his masters of fine art.

Tom Roome introduced me to another Tom this same day, Tom Castro. We’ll call him Tom06.

This Tom walked up in a zebra print T-shirt and tight shorts. We met on his land in the virtual world, Second Life and Tom06 promptly showed me his art gallery, were he displays many original works of his and even some that he’s been able to sell in Second Life. We walked slowly and I noticed Tom seemed hesitant to show me all the walls in his gallery. The more we talked and walked, it appeared Tom found a trust in my responses or lack of reactions and he invited me to his Second Life house. We flew up to Tom’s house, he calls his sky palace. In Tom’s virtual house, he has a shower with running water and a toilet with blue water. The house has an ultra- modern interior. Art tastefully lines the walls, some images risqué enough to get the “mature” label displayed in the right hand corner of his computer screen.

We toured the multi-level house, adorned with more original works of art. Many of the canvases exposed abstract images of Tom in provocative or “sexy” postures. He commented that at times it was difficult for him to be viewed as sexy, but his images successfully gave an air of a gentle eroticism and yes, sexiness.

As I followed Tom06 through his virtual world and continued the conversation with our original Tom, a third Tom’s presence emerged as he appeared prominently placed in the room. This Tom was a man without a last name. This Tom is restricted to a wheelchair, securely fastened to the seat by a buckled belt and limited to move his motorized chair by a pedal under his left toe. This Tom has Cerebral Palsy and he unabashedly lets you know, he’ll answer any questions you have, but don’t make him explain CP, “Google it.” After 30 plus years of talking about his disability, one thing the internet has done for him is offer pages and pages of medical, diagnostic, and personal explanations he’s grown tired of providing. I found my mind wandering to all the other possibilities the internet has given the disabled Tom.
Tom notes that most people don’t see past his chair or see the man seated in front of them. This Tom doesn’t have a last name because it would require a more in depth conversation, one that rarely happens. This is the Tom that I was most interested in knowing and it’s the Tom that Tom Roome is least interested in discussing. I get the impression this conversation bores Tom Roome. “I have a physical disability that limits me to a wheelchair, I can’t walk, my speech is a bit difficult to understand, and it takes me longer to do about anything a non disabled person might attempt... Blah, Blah, Blah... What’s next?” Tom wants to talk about his art, or his land and the unfriendly neighbor in Second Life, or some geeky aspect of one of the many on-line games that he loves to play.

I’m intrigued by the gap between the three Toms and anxious to discover what opportunities a virtual world such as Second Life offer to close these gaps.
I get the impression Tom has a wicked sense of humor. In his strained speech and extended mannerisms, he reminisces of a dance he once attended with other people restricted to wheelchairs, he described it as a scene from a bumper car rink. In Second Life, he can actually move smoothly on the dance floor and “physically” interact with other people.
My question for all the Toms was, “What does Second Life do for you?” To my surprise, it wasn’t the ability to fly or walk, Tom has been playing on-line games for years and this ability is almost passé at this point. For Tom, the ability to be social was the greatest gift of Second Life. As I reflected on the articles and buzz, this virtual world has created; I could see he’s right. Although, you can meet in certain sectors of Second Life and build guns and weapons and killing machines, and shoot at people till your heart’s content, this isn’t the purpose of this virtual world. The unique aspect of Second Life is the ability to construct anything you want and maintain possession and you’re never competing; unless, your attempting to get the attention of some avatar who’s struck your fancy. The Economist magazine coins the phrase “Making, not slaying,” in their September 28th. article, Living a Second Life.
Tom described a new freedom in Second Life, the ability to appear normal and not need to fight for acceptance. It’s about the way people interact with him. It slows communication a bit to Tom’s pace. Stan, Tom’s partner of three years, whom he met on-line, asked with a tone of disdain for the inconsiderate people, “Have you ever tried to type using a stick held in your teeth, methodically, one key at a time? That’s still faster and easier than getting a person to stop and listen,” Stan implies
For a person with severely limited dexterity and a computer interface that entails using your big toe on a mouse ball, games which rely on a point system to advance can still be frustrating. Second Life allows participants a freedom to exist without limits.
Interestingly, Tom06 has found a group of people on-line who are disabled. One of Tom’s friends navigates the virtual landscape in a wheelchair. I ask Tom why this person would still keep such limitations and he explains, this is how this person views himself and that doesn’t change on-line. I ask if he tells people he’s disabled and Tom doesn’t hesitate. He definitely lets people know he’s disabled, he says, It’s important for people to understand, but it’s also important that he’s honest, so people can trust him and respect him. He quickly adds, “I’m not looking for pity.” I ask how he decides when to tell a person and in Tom’s wise and succinct fashion, he replies, “When people get close.”

This is the gap. Second Life wouldn’t be a novelty for a disabled person if people in real life, “got close.” But they don’t. Our third Tom is rarely perceived outside of his wheelchair. There is a discomfort that keeps people at arms length and a distance that extends beyond the chair. Perception can be altered in this virtual world and avatars/people can be seen as who they are and not as a society might stereotypically perceive them.

Tom talks about a discomfort for people who aren’t familiar with disabilities. The conversation never moves past the superficial and shallow interactions. Tom’s voice lowers and spoken almost as a sigh, “People don’t like to be uncomfortable.”

A virtual space will never replace our physical reality of food, shelter, and safety. But, how valuable is a space that allows friendships to form, cultivates relationships, creates communities, affirms our talents, allows participants to pursue their passions, enriches our lives, and even provides financial opportunities for some? Is this real? Where does this world fit into our lives?

For a disabled person, this isn’t a second life, but becomes a different life; maybe, a new life. A place where perceptions are not shaped by the disability, but the human connection: Even if it’s an avatar talking. Tom Roome moves his chair in place and has Stan remove his shoe so he can walk Tom06 through the virtual landscape and the Linden land of opportunity, as it appears the Tom without a last name has shed his daily limitations and continues his pursuit of a “real-life."

Interview with Tom Roome by Scott Trent, October 11, 2006

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