While corporations like Microsoft, Sony, and Logitech have created and prioritized accessible tech and inclusion, work remains. Certain platforms in the gaming industry, namely streaming sites like Twitch and Facebook Gaming, house incredible communities that foster growth, yet fail to fully commit to providing an accessible and welcoming home, namely for disabled streamers.
Chris Robinson originally began streaming in 2011 to host fighting game tournaments for a collegiate club. After an approximate three-year hiatus, Robinson returned to streaming, this time adopting both a new moniker in “DeafGamersTV” as well as a new mission to teach developers and the able-bodied alike about the struggles that often accompany deaf and hard-of-hearing players when gaming.
“This was the start of my journey as a gaming accessibility advocate for deaf and hard-of-hearing gamers because I felt that I needed to share my struggles as a deaf gamer and that I needed to speak up about the lack of accessibility in games that should’ve been a normal thing by now,” Robinson says. “Like for subtitles, we deaf gamers don’t just want simple subtitles, we want to be able to adjust the size, position, font, color, and so many more to our liking so that we can feel comfortable while playing.”
As his audience grew, Robinson’s advocacy transitioned beyond his scheduled streams. Studios like Ubisoft and Microsoft have invited him to give insight on game accessibility, and he has even sat on panels at conventions like TwitchCon and the Gaming Accessibility Conference to raise awareness for disabled gamers. Each presentation is indicative of an industry that is willing to listen and document the concerns of the disabled community.
Despite the increasing adoption of accessible features and practices, Twitch still lacks crucial options that would not only enhance the experience but increase the overall ease of access for disabled streamers. For example, Robinson notes that more robust captions with adjustable size, position, and even color would make watching streams much easier for deaf and hard of hearing viewers. He also has hopes for a feature that would translate his signing into speech or text, allowing him to easily chat with his audience.
“This way I would be able to sign at my camera and chat without making everyone wait until I get to a safe point in the game where I won’t be attacked or whatever,” he says.
Further, Robinson laments the lack of a Disability tag on Twitch. This is especially perplexing as Twitch regularly includes tags for other marginalized groups, allowing individuals to find wholesome, like-minded communities where they can gather and watch their favorite streamers. Yet disabled viewers and content creators must rely on other social media platforms to advertise and find groups of their own. However, Robinson practices patience and understands that changes take time.
“Sure, they may not tackle something right away, but they are listening.”
Carlos Vasquez’s streaming journey started with the intent of demonstrating his skills as a fighting game player. Even though Vasquez is totally blind, he prides himself on being able to provide high-level gameplay. Eventually, his streams, under the handle Obsrattlehead, transitioned to include a community where both able-bodied and disabled fighting game fans alike could interact, learn from one another, and even compete in friendly and competitive exhibitions.
“Today, the goal of my streams is to provide a welcoming space to help non-disabled gamers engage and become more comfortable with learning alongside the disabled community,” Vasquez says. “Our small but tight-knit crowd works as a team to make sure everyone who stops by a live stream leaves with a better understanding of accessibility and the ways in which it brings people together. I am proud we can work collaboratively to spread my message: enjoy gaming, no matter the circumstances.”
Vasquez’s advocacy within the fighting game community-led to numerous opportunities to represent disabled players on a global stage. His presence at Evo, the Evolution Championship Series, in 2013, and Combo Breaker in 2019 afforded him the chance to connect with several developers from NetherRealm Studios, the company behind popular games such as Mortal Kombat and Injustice. As a result of these interactions, Vasquez was responsible for NetherRealm Studios adding key audio accessibility features, particularly through the form of environmental sound cues when characters approach interactive objects. This option, originally introduced in the first Injustice, can now be found in every title produced by the studio.
When streaming, Vasquez continues to keep accessibility in mind. Not only does he utilize a screen reader to read messages from his chat, he is also exploring new ways to incorporate closed captioning for deaf viewers. He even implements accessible solutions when designing and creating The Sento Showdown, a competitive tournament for blind and low-vision players hosted on Xbox.
“Our entire audience had a front-row seat to witness blind gameplay and production in action, and we are confident that many viewers walked away with a renewed appreciation for the power of inclusive practices,” he says.
From third-party software to able-bodied assistance, Vasquez manages to find workarounds, especially when Twitch’s inaccessibility creates problematic effects.
“Typically, common screen readers like JAWS, Voice Over, and NVDA will all follow the Twitch site scripts, which make a screen reader announce the long list of viewer badges before getting to the name of the sender and, finally, their message,” he says. “For cases where messages load in mass quantities, this will overload a screen-reader and sometimes cause it to shut down entirely. It makes it difficult to respond to chat messages in real-time.”
Vasquez hopes to see third-party developers work with Twitch to create accessible add-ons for better streaming experiences. Overlays, alert animations, and chat notifications should be designed with accessibility in mind, he notes. He also echoes Robinson’s statement regarding a Disability tag to allow disabled viewers and streamers to connect. But while Twitch certainly needs to improve its accessibility, Vasquez’s streams create an environment where exceptional gameplay is celebrated regardless.
“My sighted audience understands the importance of my accessibility tools, engages with fellow blind and low-vision players in the chat, and everyone is encouraged to exchange gaming experiences with each other.”
In 2011, Michael Luckett suffered a C6 spinal cord injury after a motorcycle accident. Without the use of his hands, Luckett discovered and began utilizing adaptive equipment to play video games, streaming as MikeTheQuad. Eventually, adaptive gaming became the central focus for his streaming endeavors.
“My channel has always focused on educating the world on disabilities and gaming,” Luckett says. “When I started my channel, the first thing I wanted to ensure was that my brand aligned with my mission. That began with my name, MikeTheQuad. I wanted to create an identity that is easily deciphered. While misinterpreted by those without disabilities, I’ve found my name to be a great icebreaker to talk about disabilities.”
The primary tool within his streaming arsenal is the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a completely customizable device capable of utilizing varying switches, buttons, sticks, and even other controllers to create an entirely inclusive experience for those with physical disabilities. Like some streamers, Luckett displays several camera angles to showcase live reactions and how he plays, with particular emphasis on highlighting the
“When the Xbox Adaptive Controller released, I knew I could use this tool to oversee visibility in disability awareness. The focus of my channel might look like it’s all about me, but I always become the shadow of the real star of my content-adaptive gaming,” he says.
While his disability does not affect how he operates his channel or interacts with his chat, Luckett notes that listening to the disabled community is crucial when designing features and services. Inclusivity is key, especially for marginalized groups, and actively acknowledging and recognizing disabled viewers and streamers should be a priority.
“Feedback from streamers with disabilities needs to be an ongoing conversation. I would like to have an actively seen resource group for employees with disabilities. If there’s already a team, this team needs to be active in releasing their innovations to the public,” he says.
Regardless of an individual’s disability, connecting through a public service like Twitch is crucial for socializing, networking, and feeling welcomed in an industry that, until several years ago, failed to support disabled players. While Twitch is an excellent avenue for understanding how disabled players game, the inaccessible features that continue to create barriers is proof that more work needs to be done. And as Luckett notes, more access is necessary.
“The biggest idea I try to push is ‘inclusive design,’ or a universal design. The inclusive design does not take away from anyone. It allows access to everyone.”
How technology is finally leveling the playing field for gamers with disabilities.
With a smile, Paul slips his fingers beneath a cable and dangles the large plastic button attached at the end between his teeth. “I could never find another place to put this one, so it just goes in my mouth,” the 27-year-old from Luton laughs as he returns to playing Call of Duty.
It’s an apt, albeit minor, an example of what life can be like with a disability: meeting a challenge with a unique and sometimes clever way that works for you. It’s certainly common ground that gamers with disabilities face on a regular basis. Paul Phillips is a C4/C5 tetraplegic, meaning he is paralyzed through most of his body, he has limited movement in his arms and uses a motorized wheelchair to get about. But none of this stops him from playing his Xbox.
It was 2012 when Paul broke his neck in a car accident – the same day he had been accepted full-time as a carpenter after completing an apprenticeship. Months of life-threatening complications and stresses followed for both his family and him. “I couldn’t see a future, to be honest. Depression and anxiety hit me quite hard,” he says calmly, “I had a long-term girlfriend for six years, I had many friends I went out with, and I lost a lot of that straight away.”
One of the hardest parts was the boredom. Stuck in a hospital bed as he began adapting to a new life, Phillips longed for the nights where he could relax with some friends again, carelessly mashing controllers in front of TV sets until they couldn’t bear it any longer. Like many others with his level of injury, Phillips just assumed gaming wasn’t an option as he could no longer grip an everyday controller in his hands. Suddenly, something that was such a huge part of his life had been taken away.
Thankfully though, this didn’t last long. Today, sat comfortably around his living room in St Albans, a large customized Velcro tray rests on his lap covered in a multitude of buttons – with an extra one in his mouth, of course. Through a few simple changes, Phillips has his own personalized controller, and a barrier that had such an impact on his mental health is lifted once more.
It’s all thanks to the disability gaming charity SpecialEffect that Phillips knew what to do. They visited him in the hospital, helped to assess what he needed, and advised him on the right equipment. As soon as he was back at home, he was putting in the practice to challenge his friends again. And he hasn’t looked back.
“If it wasn’t for this charity, I wouldn’t be playing,” says Phillips. “I still play for a couple of hours every day. I like being competitive online, and showing that people with disabilities can play just as well, which is always fun. Me and my brother play games together now too, which is something we never really used to do. Now I can say I’m as happy as I was before my accident.”
SpecialEffect was set up by Mick Donegan back in 2007. Working at a special needs school in Birmingham at the time, Donegan says parents would constantly ask if he had any ideas for accessible extra-curricular activities for their children, as disabilities often prevented them from venturing outside with friends. When Mick didn’t have an answer, it got him thinking about how he could help change that.
Paul Phillips, 27, in his home in St Albans: ‘I like being competitive online, and showing that people with disabilities can play just as well’
The ultimate goal for his organization is to enable as many people as possible to have easy access to video games. The charity employs occupational therapists and works with specialists to assess people with disabilities, lending out kits, and providing advice when they can to overcome any obstacles. Whether someone can use part of their body, or even just their eyes, there’s a way to play.
“Gaming is probably one of the most inclusive uses you can possibly make of assistive technology, and that actually surprised me,” says Donegan, his eyes lighting up, “I suddenly realized – goodness me, you’ve actually got people with disabilities, and you don’t need a separate competition for these guys. We can actually get them joining in with everybody else – and beat them. This is what drives me. That’s what makes me shoot out of bed at a silly time in the morning.”
“It’s a great opportunity we have,” he adds. “We’re building expertise all the time, we’re getting more and more specialist teams together, and it’s really exciting to see what the charity is able to achieve for as many people as possible.”
A winding journey 30 miles up the M1 from Paul Phillips is Laura Haddon in Milton Keynes. Haddon has cerebral palsy and only started playing video games in the past year. Like Phillips, she uses a wheelchair to move about the house and has a similar Velcro board with detachable buttons. She asks her Amazon Echo to turn her Xbox on before pausing, “it’s probably not going to work now!” says the 31-year-old, before laughing as it responds successfully.
Laura Haddon playing the Xbox at her home in Milton Keynes: ‘Gaming gave me a way to enjoy time with my friends’
“I need a lot of help with day-to-day life. Like the simplest things to the normal things, if you know what I mean. And gaming makes me forget it a bit because I can sit there for hours playing games. And I even forget when the carer comes and they walk in and say ‘what you doing?’ and I say ‘gaming!’”
Haddon’s interest in console gaming first came about when she saw other disabled friends playing and wanted to get involved. She was getting bored of simply using her tablet all the time. She wanted something that would get both her arms moving, as she explains one can be weaker than the other.
“Gaming is so important to me because it gave me a way to enjoy time with my friends. I think it’s really good because you can have people with different disabilities or no disabilities playing together. There was one friend last month who I collected points and I beat him [on a driving game online]. I was well chuffed,” she says with a mischievous chuckle, “he won’t be.”
Though the technology most of the charity’s clients use isn’t exactly new or uncommon, it’s the widespread awareness that is still lacking – for gamers and game developers alike. Many players face the same ignorance Phillips did in thinking their own console is off-limits due to their disability. Multinational groups like Microsoft have invested in the field, releasing the Xbox Adaptive Controller last year, which Phillips and Haddon both use, and Logitech has recently brought their own customizable controls to the table. But there is definitely more to be done, and the signs are there that things are improving.
“I’m really delighted to see the way that developers are taking on board the idea of making gaming more accessible to people,” Donegan says. “We’re now being approached by some pretty big companies globally. With the Xbox Adaptive Controller – for Xbox to produce a mainstream control device is such a great statement for me. They asked us to give them advice and also test the controller to make sure it was fit for purpose. That’s a big help, and welcome addition to our very large toolbox when we come on visits to support people.”
Mick Donegan, CEO of SpecialEffect: ‘Developers are taking on board the idea of making gaming more accessible’
Whereat the beginning it was the likes of SpecialEffect trying to attract the attention of these large gaming firms to prioritize accessibility, the tide is turning and it’s now the organizations that are taking notice and reaching out instead. Electronic Arts (EA), which produces the football simulation game FIFA – one of the most popular in the world with hundreds of millions of players – are one of many designers listening to Donegan and his team about how they can make minor changes to their future releases.
Back in St Albans, as Phillips shares his love of the new versions of FIFA and Call of Duty, he nods in agreement that things have come a long way, but there is still some distance to go.
“Back when I got my disability I don’t think [accessible gaming] was as well-known as it is today,” he says. “I think the awareness around it has spread a bit more. But I would definitely say there is more we can do to make other people aware, and bring disabled gaming to life.”