Wheelies Story is the detailed story of the history of the club and it is updated on a regularly basis to include recent events. The story explains the club was started and its many ups and downs in its journey within Secondlife. It also describes the media attention which the club generated and the impact the club was provided to real people and organisations around the world.
Wheelies is the world’s first disability themed virtual nightclub based in Secondlife. I, Simon Stevens, or Simon Walsh in Secondlife, founded this club in 2006 and this is the story of club over the club’s first 7 years between 2006 and 2013. It is important to understand that Secondlife is a virtual world with over 15 million users which every activity that exists in the real world, bring social networking to the next generation. It is a virtual environment where users, called residents, can do almost anything you can do in real life including shopping, dancing, skydiving and anything else you can imagine. While I did not realise it in the beginning, Secondlife has huge advantages for many disabled people including combatting social isolation and as a learning tool.
Within Secondlife, things can happen very fast as buildings can appear, change and disappear within days and sometimes simply hours, therefore I have always believed that you can equate one month in real life with a year in Secondlife. Therefore while this story while only be spread over 47real years, it could be argued that they include 70 years’ worth of events.
The story of Wheelies is I believe an amazing one. It is the story of a how a small single idea which was created in what was a quite unknown technology has acted like a pebble dropped into the huge pond as it has formed ripples which have reached people around the world. I believe in no other time in the world could such a concept had made such a unique impact in such a short time.
This is a story about my journey, as someone with a significant impairment, who has been able to challenge the existing viewpoint on disability and disabled people, by demonstrating that it is possible for disabled people to be proud of their impairments and to put them on display in environments and situations where it is not necessary to do so. It is also a unique demonstration of how disabled and non-disabled can come together for a celebration and enjoyment.
Here is how Wheelies was formed and grown, with all the ups and downs which went along with this journey. It is only offering a selection of the events which has shaped Wheelies over the first 7 years as there has been so many events and people which has made a contribution. If you wish to add your own memories to the story please do let me know.
A new viewpoint
The absolute beginning of Wheelies was when I joined Secondlife on 4 th May 2006. I had received a newsletter from a colleague which briefly mentioned this application called Secondlife. I googled it, found the web-site, registered, downloaded the software and logged in for the first time as Simon Walsh. As I walked down the hill in the induction and welcome island of this virtual world, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and how much this new opportunity would change my life.
During my first few days in Secondlife I was finding my feet and I was using my feet as I did not realise it may be possible at that time to use a wheelchair. However, during the first week, I had a strange experience which probably changed my life, Secondlife and indeed the world. I met someone who was very helpful, I would discover people are often very helpful in this new world. But I met this guy who spent the evening with me, showing me things you could do and even building me a home. It was a Secondlife I only saw this evening and the next time I logged on, the home and this guy has gone, it was like a dream. But one of the things he gave me was a wheelchair, which I used straight away.
It is important to understand that when I first joined Secondlife, there was only 200,000 users instead of the 15m plus users which now make its current population. This was a select few who saw Secondlife as a form of escapism and a virtual utopia rather than the reflection of real life society as it is now. It was therefore assumed that everyone who used Secondlife wished their avatars, their reflection of themselves in the virtual world, to be as perfect as they could, but I however had different ideas!
While there were already wheelchairs in Secondlife (sl), I believe they were only designed for demonstration purposes and it was never perceived that would be used fulltime as who would want to be disabled in sl? Well, as someone who has always had cerebral palsy from birth, which affected my mobility amongst other things, I wanted people to see what I was a disabled person. Since in sl, our appearances as avatars in our representation of who we are, I did not feel comfortable appearing as a non-disabled person, as I would have to keep explaining that I was not a non-disabled person which would be hard to comprehend without a wheelchair.
Over time I added a helmet to my avatar’s appearance as I wear one in real life and I have always wear both a wheelchair and helmet since in secondlife except for sailing, swimming and the very rare time I sat in a normal seat, virtually of course. I felt comfortable using a wheelchair and it was normal for me. I had no realisation for how significant using a chair would become in the development of Secondlife. Secondlife was something that gave me a social life and made me feel no longer lonely during a very difficult time in my life.
Right from the first few days I used Secondlife I had realised that it had huge potential in many ways for many people, including disabled people, and that I wanted to use it to develop my own aims and goals. I knew this was cutting edge and that it could be very useful. My original plans was to set up the Stevens Centre as a training centre and as an aside would be a small nightclub, which with a sense of humour, I would call Wheelies! And so the idea of the club was born.
While the main aim has always been to develop a training centre, it has still not fully developed 7 years on since it has been harder to set up than I imagined. I was however always drawn back into the development of the club as my initial focus. The reason why I decided I needed a nightclub within my Secondlife ‘portfolio’ was that it is an era where everyone was owning and running nightclubs in the circles I was in, and so I wanted one! Since I was disabled, I thought it would be fun to have a disability themed club. It was never intended to be just for disabled people and at the time I was the only disabled user I knew so it was aimed at my non-disabled virtual friends.
The very first Wheelies club was built around June 2006 on a top floor of a small centre built in some unremarkable piece of the mainland by a close friend, Wembly North. I had a few events there where I invited friends to dance to the radio, it was small and very basic but it was the start of something exciting. I however realised the land was too small for the plans I had and I needed to look at somewhere bigger.
In SL things happened very quickly and I have often felt a month in RL is like a year in SL. So when I starting using SL everything happened very fast and I had a lot of changes in quite a small time. In this context, I am quickly sold this small land and brought a castle which had a great garden. Here I really began to develop the idea of Wheelies as a proper club. I had appointed its first manager but I was still just using the radio and I was far from the realities of a fully functional club.
In a spontaneous move to start Wheelies as a proper club, I brought an already built club on another mainland sim and sold the club. The club design did have an adult theme and a few dark places, but it was a start. The club was situated on the mainland with lots of land around it for sale, which I brought up and gradually I had the whole sim to myself. After playing about with the club as it is, I decided to scrap it and have a new club built. I am still not sure what was in the mind of the builder but this club had an almost cartoon feel and looked like a multi-story car park, this certainly was not going to be a success.
During this time I used to party almost every night on the Dublin sim in an Irish club called the Blarney Stone. This was very much my first home in Secondlife and is where I met a lot of my friends, many who I am still in contact with. One person I met was Wylde Hazlitt, who I found out lived very near me in real life and so we became friends in sl and rl. He got involved in the Wheelies club and seeing my frustrations with the current design, he offered to start again on a new part of my land and build what became Wheelies first properly functioning club.
So on 1 st September 2006, Wheelies, in a fish tank style club with fish showing underneath the dance floot, was formally opened with a grand event including DJing from Cher Harrington, live music from Kazoo Twang followed by fireworks. Many of my friends came including Pathfinder Linden, one of the people behind Secondlife, and it was well received, gaining the media attention from the SL press and the BBC's disability website, Ouch. SL was however still very internalised and at the time I had no idea how huge the Wheelies story would become.
Now the club was up and running with its’ own stream, I had quickly built up its own schedule 7 days a week with a variety of DJs and Live Artists and sadly a range of managers came and went as I realised it is a different job to fill and would always be for the most part. The club was now building up quite a crowd and despite its special focus it had managed to pull in some big names in terms of live artists within the Secondlife music scene.
During this time, I saw sl as very separate from rl and certainly my rl. So while I wanted to be big in sl, I could not imagine Wheelies making any impact in the real world, but how wrong I could be. In October 2006, while I was at a youth conference in Budapest, I received a message to ring someone from Canada Broadcasting Corporation in London about a feature they were doing on SL, which I did straight away. At first, the reporter would a bit wary of involving me because of my speech impairment and asked if I knew of any other disabled people they could interview! I however challenged them on their apparent concerns saying there was no one else and so despite their initial reservations they did interview me and at the end of November I appeared on a lengthy 10 minute piece they did on SL for their evening news programme, where I had the last 3 minutes of the report as they progressed from the technical and formal to the social and informal aspects of the platform, it was indeed an amazing achievement.
By their own words I was the star of the piece and I had not at the time realised that this was a programme watched by a majority of Canadians and so along with its presence on the web-site, this piece certainly brought a lot of people into Secondlife and to the Wheelies club.
I was used to one off pieces in the media about many of my activities throughout my life and I believed after this amazing bit of media attention that would be it. The reality was that over the years Wheelies has received a huge amount of media attention including CNN.com, Newsweek International and BBC World Service. It has also received a lot of attention from universities and students around the world who have included Wheelies in their research in one way or another. It was amazing my small idea was making such an impact!
I have spent much time in sl and in rl being interviewed for magazines, web-sites, radio, TV, student projects and academic research because of Wheelies and the fact that I use a wheelchair in Secondlife. These simple ideas have appeared to excite people again and again and I believed demonstrated not only what Secondlife can do for disabled people but also what disabled people like myself can do for Secondlife, others and the world at large.
One huge highlight of Wheelies success was in 2008 when I was presented the Revolutionary Award of the UK Catalyst Awards by Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister. It was incredible that a small virtual nightclub could receive such high recognition but it does show out small things can have just a large impact. While Wheelies impact in the rl may have been very successful, its time in sl was not as easy as people may believe.
By the end of November 2006 the Wheelies mainland sim at the time, Stevensville had been fully developed with a second club, 2 block of flats and offices, a shopping mall and even for some time, an art gallery and a casino. In sl time, things were pretty settled and on this basis I had applied for and been selected to go on SL’s own very of Big Brother. While this was the genuine article, it never received much publicity and still the majority of people do not believe I have been on Big Brother, even it is not quite the version others have been on!
The Big Brother experience is a story for another time but out of a possible month, I only lasted 10 days. During this time in the glass house on the SLBB sim I was not allowed to travel anywhere else in SL and so I could not keep an eye on what was happening on the club! After leaving the ‘show’, I returned to the club on the evening to find it in one piece, but the next morning a colleague minding the club IM me to say he had returned a piece of litter and well, the club virtually blew up! I arrived to find the club in total disrepair with very little hope to being functional for the foreseeable future.
The full details of what happened still remains a mystery as it is not really possible to blow up clubs in the way it appeared to happen but what was certain that this chapter in Wheelies’ history had ended. After spending 3 months solid working on Wheelies, I decided I needed a break and rethink. However, Tom, who had been my sl boyfriend for a while decided he would have a go at rebuilding Wheelies with a second club underneath called Wheelies Extreme. However, my working relationship with Tom was not so great and I really wanted a break from it all.
So at the end of 2006, I sold my land for 2m lindens which was 3000GBP, a huge amount which helped me in rl as well as sl. For a few months I remained a nomad in sl, enjoying a wide range of social events. Despite the fact Wheelies no longer physically existed, it was still receiving a large amount of publicity and the group was still going. The idea of Wheelies was bigger than ever and it was becoming quite clear that Wheelies had to be rebuild and reopened! The interest in Wheelies saw 2 special events be arranged in the Dublin sim which was very successful.
In looking at rebuilding Wheelies, I teamed up with a friend, Warda, who I had met in the Big Brother ‘house’ as a fellow contestant who agreed to purchase an island for me to rent from them. So in April I moved onto ‘Second Ability’ island and with a new and great team behind me, I reopened Wheelies in what I now call the tower on 18th May 2007. This was another grand affair and launched the 2 nd main era of Wheelies.
The next 9 months were indeed the golden days of Wheelies. I put a lot of finances into a comprehensive schedule of DJs and Artists, as well as competitions. Due to the media attention we were growing, our visitors were increasing including many other wheelchair users and other disabled people, who showed their impairments or not.
I was beginning to realise Wheelies had become more than just a club but a whole international community, one which has the potential to change the world and to help individuals in developing their own opportunities and experiences. From what I have created naturally, I could see the club was one of the friendliest places in sl because it welcomed everyone without prejudice.
I had created something which was special and unique. On the day to day business of running the club it was sometimes hard as it is for all clubs as it will always run as a club and competed in sl as such, but it was also something much bigger. At the time, I knew Wheelies was something that would not disappear whatever may happen.
While Wheelies was doing well in terms of visitors and publicity it was very costly to run and in my real life, my financial situation was not very good at all. In February 2008 I was made bankrupt in the UK and this made me review my expenditure including Wheelies. It was clear that I was not able to continue supporting the club in the way I had been and things needed to change. I have been putting a lot of money into the club, which I really could not afford, because it was not helping my mental wellbeing.
I tried to explain the situation to my staff and key colleagues involved in Wheelies but no one appeared to be listening. I felt people had not realised the costs associated with running Wheelies and the Island despite the many attempts to gain some sponsorship. I felt the only way to save Wheelies was to do what seemed to be a bizarre move and resign from the club, which I promptly did!
The reason for this was to force a change and make people realise that there was a problem, a big problem! With me out of the way so to speak, it was time for someone else to step up to the mark and took Wheelies into the next chapter. This person to do this was Polgara Paine. Polgara in rl was a special education lecturer at an American university and she had a lot of interested in disability issues.
She had come to the club 6 months earlier and we had built up a good relationship. She had a good understanding of the situation I was in and she wanted to help. After some discussion, she worked with a steering group to take over with the club with her sl partner, Chade Valia. So she became director of Wheelies and I took the role of founder, one with I enjoyed as I continued to handle most of the PR for the evolving club.
Wheelies left the Island as Warda reclaimed his land and a temporary club was built on Polgara’s land in the Sky. A few weeks later Polgara and Chade brought a whole mainland sim by the sea, one of the most southern points in sl, Tapau. So Wheelies was rebuilt as ‘wheelies on the water’. At the end of a pier, this glass circular club was the new home of Wheelies as it entered a new phrase in its chapter.
The Tapau sim, called accessible builds, was not only home for Wheelies but also a residential area aimed at disabled sl users who wanted a safe place to live. This meant the ‘disability’ theme became a greater focus of the club, more than I would had wanted. But the club was growing and it was now regarded as a cornerstone of Secondlife. During 2008 and the start of 2009, the club appeared to be settled, now as a project of a larger organisation, Virtual Helping Hands.
I have learnt in life that nothing stays the same and this was certainly true in Secondlife, where change was easy, often too easy. While everything appeared to be going well with Wheelies, I started to realise things were not as it seemed. The day it really hit home was 27th June 2009, Helen Keller Day. Helen Keller is a Deafblind American who is regarded as an important historical figure for disabled people in America. Virtual Helping Hands had organised a huge celebration of Helen Keller Day in SL and to promote its main project, Max, their virtual guide dog they had created.
It was assumed I would do the introduction talk as a matter of course without really properly asking me and this did slightly annoy me. Later in this 24 hour event, I was presented with a Virtual Pioneer Award along with another person for the great work I had done in Secondlife. While it was indeed extremely nice to receive such an award I did feel it was a slight attempt to retire me from the SL disability scene, which was not a very good idea as receiving the award helped me regain my desire for activism.
One of the workshops at the event was on accessibility issues within sl. Because there were now many wheelchair users in sl, it had started to become good practice to make buildings in sl wheelchair accessible as well as adopting the other good design access like colour contrasting and bright lights. The workshop was suggesting that the access needs of avatars using wheelchairs were somehow fake or false as some people deemed them as be artificial as opposed what they seem to be the real access issues of people with sensory impairments, particularly visual impairments.
The virtual guide dog had made the needs of virtually impaired avatars ‘cute’ and so they were now receiving a lot of the attention. The use of Helen Keller as the ‘hero of disabled people’ suggested the sl disability community now has become more bias towards blind issues but also American values. As someone who played a key part in creating and developing the sl disability community as a British wheelchair user, I was clearly becoming quite insulted with what I was hearing!
My concern was made worse when I discovered that just after the Helen Keller Day that Wheelies was having financial difficulties and it had stopped paying its staff. I was further angered when I realised Virtual Helping Hands who was claiming Wheelies as one of their projects was refusing to make any efforts to support the club, focusing its’ efforts of their damn dog, saying the Wheelies had to be self-sufficient. Since Wheelies had brought a huge amount of attention to disability issues in Secondlife, it was deeply insulting that people were prepared to let Wheelies fall by the waist side.
While I did not own Wheelies, I was not going to let the values of the club as a safe and friendly place disappear as it was clear that things at the current club were not going very well and really I felt the club was dying. This was when I had the idea for ‘Wheelies 74’, a new club which would bring back the fun to disability in Secondlife and restore the core values which made Wheelies as successful as it once was.
Back to the future
As I knew I did not own Wheelies, I had some cheek naming my new club ‘Wheelies 74’ but the brand Wheelies was still largely linked to myself as Simon Walsh and therefore it was difficult for anyone to challenge me using the name. It may have also been cheeky for me to build my club just North of the existing club but this is the land I had for a long while and I wished to develop.
Once I had decided to build the new club, Wheelies 74, I took a lot of time to develop the idea and the club, to ensure the club was properly funded and founded on a more stable footing. The 74 came from my year of birth and I used it on purpose so people would ask. This was not going to be easy but I was going to give it a damn good try. So on 3rd December 2009, on the International Day for disabled people, Wheelies 74 opened with another historic grand opening.
At the end of 2009, the old Wheelies club agreed at my request to rename to Club Accessible which meant I once again owned the Wheelies brand for the future. On this basis I decided to launch Wheelies 74 as Wheelies again on 20th April 2010, my 36th birthday, and at the start of 2010 I I decided to update the Wheelies dance club and Stevens Centre, I commissioned members of the SL Solution Providers Program, Markopolan Corporate, who's lead designers and founders Markopolis Balhaus and Czarhahn Yao. We had a very good working relationship as they have helped develop Wheelies to the next level and made it look extremely professional. As well as Wheelies, the resort also include the Stevens Centre for training on disability issues, Pride Park garden, Splashdown pool, 74 Lounge for live artists, Include exhibition, Viewpoint theatre/cinema and Stay ice hotel
While all was looking positive, I was realising that staying on an mainland sim was not going to allow the number of visitors at once I really needed or the control necessary to make the quantum leap the club needed to become financially secure. So I obtained a new island for my activities which I called Llamdos, which is ‘sod m all’ backwards.
Twists and Turns
With a new island came a new opportunity to success and continue to portray my developing values to the world. The reality was however that I was getting more busy in real life and so while I did not want to give up Secondlife and Wheelies. Markopolis designed me a wonderful island, a real work of art, but the Island was not being used by many people and I did not have time to put into the club. I decided that to make the club the success it deserved to be, I needed a new club manager, and I asked Ned Heartsdale, who been a DJ with the club for some years, and also had cerebral palsy, which he accepted. He has been a great manager and he has slowly and steadily rebuild the club.
Since I have always been financing the club out of my own pocket in one way or another, I realised after a year of being on the Llamdos Island, the prestige on the island was too expensive for me, especially as my real life activities grew, and so once again the club moved back onto a mainland sim, now Trefoot, so reduced costs. The focus for the next year was to build up the entertainment and with Ned and his great team of staff, the club once again run a series of events 7 days a week, bringing the club one step closer to its Golden age. The club's building kept changing and as my real life was as busy as ever, I kept a back seat and still do, poise to properly return to being an active secondlife resident when the time comes.
Steady and Stable
As the club heeded towards 2014 and its 8th year of operation it is as stable as its ever been. The club had not yet regained the status it had in his golden era and my real life still meant I could not give secondlife the time it deserved, but I know how things can change and I still believed when the time was right that Secondlfe and Wheelies would once again have the place of pride in my life that it deserved. But I had to make a living and so I left Wheelies in the capable hands of Ned. Some of the specifics of the club keep changes in the way things in Secondlife always do keep changing, and the original spirit of Wheelies, that has captured the spirit of so many people, still lives on strong as ever without the need to publicity or media attention.
Wheelies will remain a very important part of my life that I believe remains something important to so many ideas. Despite being just a lot of pixels in cyberspace, the club has been something that has been very real to a lot of people, bringing joy and happiness around the world in a way that remains revolutionary. It has been one of those simple but original ideas that continued to capture people's imaginations again and again. While the club no longer has the level of publicity it once has, I still am asked for interviews from students from colleges and universities around the world and even find the club mentioned on various research papers and publications.
The club has never made a profit and for the most part, I have been funding it out of my own pocket at a loss, but I think making money was never the point but it was firstly making myself happy and then others, especially since I am paying for it! And while I am not personally always benefiting the activities of Wheelies, because I have been too busy in real life, it has been rewarding to know that I have made other people, and many people at that, happy. I think as well as many other activities in Secondlife, Wheelies has remained a safe friendly place for anyone, regardless of their background and something they can escape the stresses of their real life while still being themselves.
My aim experiences as a disabled resident of Secondlife, and the first full time wheelchair using avatar, and the founder of Wheelies has played a central role of the development of Secondlife for Disabled people, along with many other groups, and it remains a great achievement for the club to be a part of that.