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Online a virtual business option for disabled

By Steve Mollman
For CNN
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If you have a new product or service and want to hold a launch party, Simon Stevens is your man. He'll take care of the logistics. He'll provide a DJ and live musicians. He'll take care of the security, too, discouraging obnoxious types from ruining the event.

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A beach scene from the "Second Life" virtual world is shown on a computer at The Hague, Netherlands.

Never mind that Stevens has cerebral palsy, and uses a wheelchair. That might be a concern in the real world, but in Second Life, where the 33-year-old works, his disability is not a disadvantage.

Stevens is one of many disabled entrepreneurs making money in Second Life, the much-hyped virtual world that, quietly, is giving many disabled people a chance to earn income, interact with others and boost their feelings of self-worth.

In Second Life, real people -- represented by avatars -- can make, buy and sell virtual things and services. Millions around the world already use Second Life, which is less than five years old. Its virtual currency can be exchanged for real-world money. Research firm Gartner estimates that 80 percent of Internet users worldwide will be in non-gaming virtual worlds like Second Life by the end of 2011.

Stevens, who lives in England, says he recently earned about $10,000 in real-world income helping a large car manufacturer set up its presence in Second Life, and that he earns thousands more on other projects. And his commute? It's a few seconds from his bedroom to his home office. Once he's at his computer, there are no disadvantages in the virtual world.

If anything, he says, he has an early-move advantage. He's already been immersed in Second Life, where he's called Simon Walsh, for a year now. "Second Life moves so quickly," he says. "I'm one year ahead of the game ... I know everything important ..."

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Meanwhile, across the world in the U.S. state of Oregon, a 50-year-old man with an autoimmune disorder works in Second Life from bed, using a laptop. Known as Skyler Goode in Second Life (he requested his real name not be published), he charges about $20 an hour for consultation, support and 3-D art services in the virtual world. He also sells virtual land, and says sales have amounted to about $5,000 in the past three months.

But money is just a part of it. "Psychologists recognize the importance of having purpose in life," he says. "People just need something to do that gives them a sense of worth and fulfillment, or life becomes meaningless. Second Life fills the need I have to keep an active mind. I suffer far less depression."

David E. Stone, a psychologist and visiting scholar at Harvard University, has been studying the benefits of virtual worlds for the disabled. The environment of Second Life, he says, "offers the opportunity to those who are disabled to be productive members of the world economy by doing very useful work."

In the real world, he notes, disabled people usually cannot enjoy the satisfactions of work -- intellectual stimulation, professional (and sometimes personal) relationships, and a sense of self-worth. But the disabled people who do real jobs in Second Life, he says, are able to benefit from work in all these ways.

Stephen Bennett, president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy, agrees. "Beyond the obvious benefit of making money, people with disabilities experience a sense of worth, freedom, and the ability to contribute to society when they use Second Life."

That includes contributing to the virtual society. Nanci Schenkein, a 54-year-old with multiple sclerosis, says she's proud of the role she's played in building up Second Life. A real-world event manager before multiple sclerosis limited her mobility, she joined Second Life in July 2003.

Over the years, she says -- as the avatar character Baccara Rhodes -- she has played a significant role in some of the online world's most popular events. Now she's working on an upcoming event that will focus on environmental issues, incorporate real-world rock musicians, and blur the line between a real and virtual event.

"Second Life is a driving force in my life," she says. "It has been an amazing ride, and I am quite proud of my part in its growth." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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