Donna DavisDonna Davis, assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for $101,140 to study the role of people with disabilities in the innovation of online technology. The grant, “Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self,” is in collaboration with co-principal investigator (PI) Tom Boellstorff at the University of California, Irvine, for a combined total of $378,040. This is the largest research grant awarded to a faculty member in the SOJC.

Davis will serve as co-PI for the three-year project, which begins July 1, 2015. The project will explore how the Internet is changing the ways Americans think of themselves as individuals and interact as members of communities. The researchers are focusing on the experiences of people with disabilities in “virtual worlds,” three-dimensional, immersive online spaces where people with disabilities can appear any way they choose and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

“I believe this research will be important to our understanding of living with disabilities and how we may rethink the way we frame both ability and disability,” says Davis. “As technology continues to advance and provide mediated cultures where individuals can thrive socially, creatively, intellectually and professionally, it will be important to address access to social technologies as well as the opportunities and risks inherent in these platforms.”

Virtual worlds have millions of users, but they are just part of a much larger domain of internet technology that includes everything from devices like smart phones and laptops to online venues like social network sites, blogs, and e-commerce.

Watch a short video about Davis’s research in virtual worlds.

By observing how people with disabilities create and interact socially in virtual worlds, and how they use different kinds of devices in their homes to experience these online environments, the researchers will better understand how new online technologies influence how we think about our bodies, how we think about social interaction, and how we think about the role of the Internet in everyday life.

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to continue my work with Tom Boellstorff, who is a world-renowned pioneer in the anthropological exploration of virtual worlds,” Davis explains. “Through this grant, we will be able to provide our study participants with technologies that should enable extremely immersive experiences. We hope to observe powerful and creative ways they use these devices to augment and enhance quality of life when their physical circumstances have been challenged by disability.”

“I’m thrilled that Professor Davis has obtained NSF support to deepen her research into virtual experiences for people with disabilities” says interim Edwin L. Artzt Dean and professor Julie Newton. “The grant both acknowledges the significance of her research and makes it possible for her to take it to the next level, using her knowledge to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Using research to help find innovative solutions for society is at the heart of the SOJC and is core to the mission of this great research university.”

The NSF grant was awarded through the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Science, which supports research to develop and advance scientific knowledge about humans spanning areas of inquiry including brain and behavior, language and culture, origins and evolution, and geography and the environment.

Story by Amy Pinkston