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Making Games Accessible: The Work of SpecialEffect

Video games can be used as a means of escapism for many of us. They can be a way to let off steam, have fun and relax but for those with disabilities access to this form of media can be a lot harder. One charity is working to change that and use games for the better.

Arlo plays Minecraft just using his eyes.

Marley plays World of Warcraft using four chin joysticks.

Alex plays a whole variety of games using a combination of voice controls, switches and eye-gaze.

Ryan plays FIFA using an adapted controller and finger switches.

These are just some of the ways people with disabilities can adapt to playing video games and a handful of ways SpecialEffect has enabled them to do so.

SpecialEffect is a UK based charity which works to help make games more accessible for those with disabilities.

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They help put fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games.

Everyone has different abilities so the charity visits people in person to find out what they are interested in playing and what they need to be able to play it.

They then work to match, modify and even create equipment to lend to them alongside giving expert support so they can get the most out of it.

Some of these amazing modifications can include eye-control systems, voice controls or adding a chin joystick.

Sometimes they’ve even gone as far as using a drill and soldering iron to adapt the button positions on a controller.

By modifying the controllers in hundreds of different ways it means every piece of equipment they recommend or loan can be personalised to the person’s needs.

How They Help

SpecialEffect are helping to level the playing field, bringing families and friends together and having a profoundly positive impact on therapy, confidence and rehabilitation.

what-we-do-header.jpgThe charity is made of around 20 people that range from specialist occupational therapists and R&D staff who cover the frontline work to admin and fundraising/communication teams who keep the charity rolling.

Despite its small size the charity does hugely inspiring work with people like Chad who said: “I thought my gaming days were over, but thanks to SpecialEffect I can now play FIFA in a different but novel way. Never thought I would play the Xbox using my mouth but if there is a will there is a way!”

Mark Saville is a member of the Fundraising and Communications team at SpecialEffect.

He makes up a team of around six people who run events, tell the world what they’re doing, who and how they’ve helped, and thank people for their support.

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Mark Saville

Looking at how they make games more accessible for those with disabilities he said: “One person at a time.

“There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all controller so we look at people’s abilities, often down to the last controllable millimetre of movement, to harness as a potential way of controlling a video game.

“Then we offer life-long support should their abilities change.

“Pretty much all the equipment we use is off-the-shelf making replacement much easier if it goes wrong or needs replacing and changing.”

The main types of disability Special effect often help include those with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and stroke.

However, they also help a range of people who have suffered combat injuries, spinal injuries, loss of limbs, hands or fingers along with others who have hyperextension of the fingers and arthritis.

On how video games help benefit those with disabilities Mark said: “So many ways. Fun, inclusion with family and friends, increase in self-confidence, better work-life balance, escapism so many benefits!”

A powerful example of this is Ian Gannon.

Ian was born with Muscular Dystrophy and his life expectancy was to live to his early teens but despite this he surpassed that estimation.

He was a huge football fan but his condition meant he could never physically play so he would spend hours playing FIFA on the PlayStation.

But over time Ian became weaker and could no longer use a conventional controller which is when SpecialEffect stepped in.

They designed and specially adapted a controller based on his abilities not his disabilities.

His parents said: “When he was online, he wasn’t Ian who has Muscular Dystrophy and was in a wheelchair, he was just ‘Ian’ and as far as anyone else knew he was your average 27yr old.”

They spoke of how SpecialEffect was so important for Ian and that it was what enabled him to feel normal.

Ian passed away in September of this year, with the charity having helped him for several of those.

His parents said: “Without the help from SpecialEffect, Ian’s life would have been completely different. We cannot begin to explain how much SpecialEffect changed his life, enabling him to have so much fun – it was his lifeline.”

Working at SpecialEffect

Expressing how rewarding working for Special effect is Mark Saville said: “It’s a genuinely honest charity. We’re here to help people with disabilities, and everyone’s 100% committed to making that happen.

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“We’re also really humbled by the support we’re getting from a huge range of individuals and communities.”

He also spoke about how accessible gaming is becoming: “We we’re honoured to be involved in the design and testing of the Microsoft Accessible Controller, and we’re also working alongside other developers, advising on accessibility.

“Gaming accessibility certainly has higher awareness in the industry than it did a few years ago.

The Microsoft Adaptive Controller has been the recent popular starting point for many, and we’re busy advising and assessing on the best equipment to use with it.”

Special effect also runs a project called StarGaze which enables users to control a computer simply by looking at it.

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This means those who have suffered a sudden injury or illness that has left them completely paralysed except for their eyes can use the internet, play games and even run their own business.

The StarGaze project gives access and support of eye-gaze technology in intensive care, right after an accident or sudden illness which can also help stimulate the brain and keep the mind active.

It’s an important service that has the potential to open the door for communication, but can also mean users can become more independent whether that be in education, work or leisure.

Rob had a high spinal injury in 2013. The video below shows how he uses an eye-controlled computer and why it was so important to him during a critical time after the accident and how it affected him.

Dr Mick Donegan, CEO of Special Effect has many years of experience as a teacher and an Assistive Technology Specialist.

He also has extensive knowledge in assessing, teaching, training, and supporting people with complex communication difficulties.

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Mick Donegan

He was involved in SMARTlab’s ‘Duet for Eyes’ performance at the Science Gallery, Dublin in which two people with complex disabilities performed a duet using gaze controlled technology, along with some of Ireland’s leading professional musicians.

In 2018 Xbox’s ‘Adaptive Controller’ was released which was developed by Xbox with help from SpecialEffect and others working in the field of games accessibility.

At Game Developers Conference in March, Mick was presented with an Xbox-sponsored award in recognition of SpecialEffect’s global success in “Bringing Gaming to Everyone”.

Detailing why games are so important Mick said: “It’s important to them in just the same way as everyone else only with the added bonus of being able to meet and compete on a level playing field with anyone in a way that would be impossible for them in the real world.

“As a young man who’d had a severe stroke told us ‘In a videogame, I no longer have limitations. In a sense, it’s a form of rehabilitation, both mentally and physically.  I am ‘normal’”

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How SpecialEffects Work Helps Those In Need

Alex Kostov a gamer helped by SpecialEffect spoke about why he values the help he has received: “It’s more than just a charity which helps people play videogames. They change lives.

“Through their knowledge and expertise, people like myself can now join in on the fun and play with friends on an even playing field, experiencing all the benefits of social interaction.

“It may be hard for some to imagine, but being included in such activities makes a huge and positive difference in our lives.”

Becky another gamer helped by the charity said: “I can’t do much by myself, but I now can play video games, which gives me a great sense of independence and achievement.”

 How can you help?

There are lots of ways to help but for us gamers there is a brilliant way to get involved called GameBlast which is a gaming weekend that takes place from the 22 – 24 of February – It’s a great excuse to game!

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You can also donate directly at https://www.specialeffect.org.uk/get-involved/donate

You can see some of the amazing work SpecialEffect does in action on their youtube channel.

Information for those with limiting disabilities:

For more information about EyeMine a free to download software enabling those with limiting disabilities to play miecraft with their eyes check out the website here.

The software works with a number of eye-trackers, including low-cost units like the Tobii 4C.

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Those with a physical disability that limits or stops them from playing video games can get in touch here.

The charity has a special Games room in Oxfordshire where you can try a range of accessible gaming equipment or home visits can be arranged if your disability limits you from doing so.

The team can then access your needs and try to find the best fit for you and create work arounds if those needs change in the future.

Special Effect gives this help and support free of charge which is why funding and donations are so important.

Disclaimer: All the images, videos or linked videos supplied or referenced are the copyright of SpecialEffect. They must not be used by any other party or for any other purpose without the express permission of SpecialEffect. Use of these resources imply agreement to terms.

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