6 Min

The Potential of Virtual Reality for Deaf Accessibility

While VR is in its infancy, there are some emerging uses for the deaf and hard of hearing on the horizon. Click here to read all about them!

Molly Glass
Molly Glass
The Potential of Virtual Reality for Deaf Accessibility

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality, or VR, is a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment. Participants access VR through a helmet or specially designed glasses. They can move in the space and see other people and locations as if they were real. Unlike traditional video games, in VR, you become a participant in the virtual world. 

Current & Potential Uses

While VR is in its infancy, there are some emerging uses for the deaf and hard of hearing on the horizon. Within education and entertainment, we are witnessing an increasing utilization of VR usage.

Sign Language Classes

A woman with blond hair, wearing VR glasses, signing “tea”. Image credit: Gallaudet University and Motion Light Lab.
A woman with blond hair, wearing VR glasses, signing “tea”. Image credit: Gallaudet University and Motion Light Lab.

One new use of VR is for learning sign language. The three-dimensional perspective of VR makes it an ideal environment for learning, as it allows learners to see all the movements and handshapes. We used to learn sign language from books that offered a one-dimensional perspective. Since the creation of technology and computers, many are now learning sign language from videos, which has improved the dimension to 2D. However, VR ASL lessons would be a step forward for new learners, providing a more immersive and interactive learning experience.

The ideal VR experience would be interactive. You can watch the avatar sign and copy it. The program can potentially recognize your movements and give corrective feedback in real time. One notable VR lab pioneering this work is Motion Light Lab, an award-winning research and development lab at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. They have completed various projects, from signing avatars for children’s books and TV shows to 3D ASL interactive lessons and leading the research on the latest innovations.

They have a program called Signing Avatars Immersive Learning (SAIL) for ASL lessons, which received financial support from the National Science Foundation. With the help of deep learning programming, users can quickly learn if they complete a sign correctly and gain feedback through their app “ASL Champ”. 

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Accessible TV Shows and Games

Within Meta, finger tracking during gameplay was developed in 2022, allowing players to create realistic signs in the VR environment. The potential is there for players to interact with other fluent signers in the game space eventually. 

Other potential uses are a real-time interpretation of Deaf communication, transitioning between ASL and English, and vice versa. Imagine a game where you can select the language of your characters to match your native language. Video games are rarely captioned, but this could pave the way for more content and entertainment accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. 

VR avatars can also be used for TV programming, especially with cartoons. One example is a children’s TV show, Emma Memma, with her own VR avatar that uses Auslan Sign Language. This adds increased accessibility as her character switches from herself to the cartoon version. 

Another example is Avatar: The Way of the Water, which relied heavily on Deaf actor CJ Jones to create a made-up sign language for that world. The animated characters would use their signs to communicate while underwater, which is called Na’vi Sign Language. 


The past and future development of virtual reality brings many exciting possibilities for accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing communities. From TV shows, classrooms, video games, to communication – the possibilities ahead are numerous. Within ten to fifteen years, we could have a new virtual world where everyone is on an equal playing field for the first time. 

Molly Glass
Molly Glass

Molly, a Deaf mom of two CODAs, lives with her hearing partner of almost 14 years in the scenic Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Profoundly Deaf since 18 months old, she enjoys writing about the lived Deaf experiences and advocacy. In her free time she reads, and is very slowly working on authoring her first book.

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