Hft trials VR to encourage physical and social activity for learning disabled adults

17th May 2023
Sheryl Miles

National learning disability charity Hft is trialling virtual reality (VR) technology to encourage physical activity for learning disabled adults.

As an extension of its FitBees project and well-established Personalised Technology service, the charity is set to embrace both the physical and social benefits of VR as a multi-purpose technology.

The charity initially trialled VR technology earlier this year following a brainstorming session with staff at its Leicestershire day service to identify innovative ways to make physical activity more fun and engaging for learning disabled adults. They landed on the idea of VR to see if participants would enjoy playing games whilst being physically active.

The team first tried out the technology in February with a group of four learning disabled adults and staff, who were introduced to a VR headset and a variety of games.

“Initially, some participants were apprehensive about wearing the VR headset,” Ben Williams, Project Co-Ordinator, explains: “One even commented that the person setting up the headset looked like a robot. However, the team assured the participants that they would be safe and comfortable while using the technology.”

Once the participants were comfortable, they started with the game Beat Saber which sets the challenge of using virtual lightsabers to cut through blocks. They also trialled a dance game, where they interacted with a virtual character and dance routines along to music in a virtual nightclub, and played bowling, and tennis in the virtual world.

Almost immediately, one benefit of the technology was revealed – it was an incredible source of fun! One of the participants, Nick, commented: “I absolutely love it,” whilst Lucinda added, “I feel alive.”

Ben adds: “It was immediately obvious that the VR headset was a lot of fun. It was something new and different and had the added bonus of social interaction which is crucial for adults with learning disabilities. Hft’s own research, Lockdown on Loneliness, identified that over one third of adults with a learning disability feel lonely nearly always or all of the time.

“It was great to see how much joy the games and headset sparked and that, even those who weren’t playing at the time, enjoyed watching the others.”

Hft introduced games that were not only fun but would also encourage physical activity.

This follows Hft’s partnership with AI startup Tendertec on the FitBees project, a £1.8 million UKRI-funded project supporting under-represented groups to get more active.

A key finding to come out of the FitBees project is that there is a need for more platforms and devices that are easy to use to provide people with learning disabilities with the same opportunities as everyone else.

Physical activity is incredibly beneficial for adults with learning disabilities; it can improve fitness, build strength, and improve dexterity which can be limited in people with cerebral palsy, as an example.

Hft’s trial of the VR technology was a huge success and confirmed that it can be a fun and entertaining way to engage in physical activity. The Leicestershire day service is now considering purchasing a VR headset for learning disabled adults to enjoy and continue to benefit from being more physically and socially active. There is also scope for the technology to be used for meditative and relaxation purposes.

Hft is one of the UK leaders in the use of Personalised Technology, offering a range of person-centred services, from specialist technology-enabled care systems to safer bathplugs, to enhance the lives of learning disabled adults and promote independence.

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