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Fisher Students Organize Virtual Reality Wellness Day

September 7, 2018

This summer, four graduate students at St. John Fisher College teamed up with Easterseals NY and VeRacity VRcade to offer sensory experiences to individuals living with disabilities.

Mental Health Counseling students and professors watch as individuals from Easterseals NY play virtual reality games.

The first-ever Virtual Reality Wellness Day, held on Wednesday, Aug. 22, at VeRacity VRcade, provided individuals with autism and other disabilities served by Easterseals NY a chance to use virtual reality (VR) to experience activities they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

“The participants were a bit hesitant at first but once they started playing they became very excited,” said Maria Shaw, a student in the Wegmans School of Nursing’s mental health counseling graduate program, who helped organize the event. “We also had some parents joining in and sharing the experience of virtual reality with their kids.”

Shaw said that families played a variety of VR games, including Audio Shield, Google Earth Experience, and Space Pirate, among others.

“Virtual reality provides a great opportunity for people with disabilities to experience what they may never have a chance to experience such as skydiving or skiing,” she explained. “Playing the game might also be a chance to challenge fears and limitations for people with autism spectrum disorder by providing a safe and supportive environment.”

The idea behind Virtual Reality Wellness Day was born when Dr. Rob Rice, associate professor of mental health counseling, challenged four students in his practicum course to develop a program in conjunction with their field experience at Easterseals NY.

The collaboration with the community agency was made possible through a $1.9 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, which allowed the School to emphasize integrated behavioral and physical health care training. As a result, Rice was able to place four graduate students at Easterseals NY, which is in the process of expanding its integrated care efforts, to gain experience working with people with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

“Easterseals is thrilled to expand our collaboration with St. John Fisher College,” said Lora Winghart, director of clinical and community services at Easterseals. “We have been working with Fisher to place their integrated counselor interns within our Clinic. The goal is to connect the Primary Care and Mental Health services for our participants. This new project was a great next step in our partnership.”

Through the course, Rice encouraged his students to organize and implement a day where people served by Easterseals NY could engage in virtual reality, a tool he has used in his own practice.

Mental Health Counseling students and professors watch as individuals from Easterseals NY play virtual reality games.

With that in mind, his students approached VeRacity owner Isai Pochtar about hosting an event. It was a project Pochtar was happy to support. Opened in early 2018 at RIT’s Park Point, the arcade features six VR stations in its 1,400 square foot facility, offering a fully immersive experience where VR gamers can take a 3D stroll through the streets of Paris, an exhilarating run down a ski slope, or battle UFOs through outer space.

 “Originally, the focus of the arcade was to showcase VR and use it for entertainment, but then we noticed a lot of health benefits,” Pochtar explained, noting that stroke victims have used the technology to help rebuild their sensory skills. “There are limitless opportunities with VR, and we see a lot of potential for health care.”

For Rice, the benefits of Virtual Reality Wellness Day were two-fold. Those served by Easterseals NY experienced new activities in a safe environment, and his students practiced their counseling skills as they discuss the experiences with them.

“The day is really about promoting wellness and mental health by providing new experiences and giving participants a chance to process those experiences through sharing,” he said.

Student Briana Presutti said at the end of the event, she felt both goals had been accomplished.

“Overall from the feedback we received, the clients loved the event and it was great to see the clients interacting with each other as well as watching and encouraging each other while they were playing,” she said. “For me, this day helped improve my counseling skills by providing another tool for me to use with clients and engage them in treatment. I was fortunate to be involved in the project because this really opened my eyes to what virtual reality can do, and how it can be of service to people in treatment.”