Helping people with disabilities to enjoy computer games

You may recall our report on the Tech4Good awards earlier this year in July. The awards, organised by AbilityNet in partnership with BT, recognise organisations and individuals that use digital technology to improve the lives of others – including those with disabilities.

Digital gaming charity Special Effect took home the Accessibility Award and was Winner of Winners in recognition of its work in opening up the online games industry to those with physical disabilities.

We had a chat with Mark Saville, who works in communications for Special Effect, about the charity and how they're opening up access to computer games. The charity's mission is to put the fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games. By leveling the playing field, Special Effect is bringing families and friends together and having a profoundly positive impact on therapy, confidence and rehabilitation.

In a nutshell, what does Special Effect do?

Special Effect is a charity that targets something that often gets overlooked – that people with disabilities have lives beyond simply 'being disabled' and want to enjoy themselves. We provide the specialist technology, advice and support for everyone to benefit from the fun, friendship and inclusion of video games.

Since 2007 we've been making a profoundly positive impact on the quality of life for children and adults of all ages. Not just by helping them to have fun, but by supporting the use of video games for therapy, self-esteem and rehabilitation. Our doors are open to everyone, including accident victims, service personnel with combat injuries, people with congenital and progressive conditions and stroke patients.

Our help includes the loan and support of mainstream and adapted access equipment for online and offline games. Some of the specialist equipment, like eye-control technology, is expensive, so the loans enable people to make sure it's suitable before they commit to a purchase. We don't sell any equipment, so our advice is always impartial. Crucially, all our support is free.

How is Special Effect opening up the online games industry, in terms of accessibility?

We realise that there are incredibly tight schedules and budgets to meet just to survive in the gaming industry, so we're not in the business of hitting developers and publishers over the head with a big accessibility stick and shouting "you must include such and such feature to make your games accessible."

Instead we're looking to inspire the industry with examples of the sort of amazing difference an accessible games set-up can make to the life of someone with disabilities, so that they're aware of the wider benefits of including features that make assistive technology easier to implement. We're already working with several companies to make just that kind of difference.

How does participation in online games support people with physical disabilities?

It's all about inclusion and improving quality of life. Take Arlo, a seven year-old boy whose cerebral palsy meant that he couldn't join in with his friends playing football – not only the REAL game, but the computer version too. When his friends came round to play, his options were so limited that they usually ended up outside playing with his four year-old brother instead.

We've now lent him equipment that will let him play football and other games on his console with his friends. It's boosted his confidence, his self-esteem and his attitude to life. It also means that he can finally interact with his own family on a level playing field – something he's never been able to do. View Arlo's video 'Playing to win'.

But the impact of what we do goes beyond the individual we're helping. It gives the parents and carers some much-needed free time, it brings families and friends together, it brings a work/life balance to disabled people in employment, and it brings fun and engagement into therapy.

Do you have any videos we could link to, showing how your technology is enabling participation? A case study for example?

Here's Ben, who has spinal muscular atrophy. He never thought he'd be able to play video games until he visited our accessible gaming room in Oxfordshire. There are many great stories like Ben on our YouTube channel.

What plans do you have for 2015?

Much, much more of the same. Demand for our help is rocketing, so we're looking to increase the number of assessment visits we carry out, and increase the amount of support we can give via email and phone. We'll also be focusing on research and design so that we can make the most of the latest developments in gaming and assistive technology.

What trends do you see in the future with regards to access to online gaming for all?

Access to effective streaming is going to be important, as is access to e-sports. We are already seeing some highly respected gamers with disabilities at the very top of their chosen gaming arenas, and we'd like to see that trend continue. Many of the people we help have the necessary drive and determination to be competing and beating the very best, and it's our job to give them the best opportunity to achieve that.

Find out more about Special Effect.

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