Gamers with Disabilities Battling for Recognition

July 17th, 2011 by Kel Smith | Filed under Attitudes of Disability, Gaming, Media Coverage, Virtual Reality

Chuck Bittner is one of the most prominent advocates for adding accessibility to videogames.

Chuck Bittner is one of the most prominent advocates for adding accessibility to videogames. Photo by Chuck Bittner for

An article in Wired’s GameLife section details the struggle that players are having in bringing accessibility to video games. This isn’t merely an issue of accommodating users with a physical disability, such as Chuck Bittner (pictured), who has quadriplegia and can only reach certain buttons on standard Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers.

The challenge also lies within logistical aspects of game design and commercialization, since accessibility is often the first feature cut in order to ensure that a game is released on schedule. Even something as seemingly basic as closed captioning is often left on the “nice to have” list:

“These are not features that nobody has ever done before, or features that need lots of exploration and research,” said game designer Matthew Burns, who has worked on titles in the Call of Duty and Halo series, in an e-mail. The problem, he says, is that accessibility options are often the first thing cut during crunch time, when time and money are at a premium.

[An] oft-requested accessibility feature is closed-captioning. Most games include subtitles for spoken dialog, but that’s only half of the auditory experience. In many games, nonverbal sound cues can be essential for success. AbleGamers’ [Mark] Barlet says text-based representations of a full spectrum of sounds and visual cues would be immensely helpful for the hearing-impaired.

The health benefits of video games and virtual reality are increasingly being adopted by critical thought leaders in the rehabilitation space. This transcends people born with medical problems; genetic disease, injury, degenerative motor skill and cognitive depreciation can happen to any of us, at any time. In fact, gamers over the age of 50 now outnumber those under 18. Also note this intriguing research from the University of NY Buffalo on the likelihood of disability among age and gender groups:

Among persons with a disability, the likelihood that the disability will be severe also increases with age. The likelihood is 21.8 percent among persons less than 18 years old, 38.2 percent among persons 18 to 44, 52.2 percent among persons 45 to 64, 56.8 percent among person 65 to 74, 65.1 percent among persons 75 to 84, and 81.2 percent among persons 85 and over.

Video games are like any other online service to which universal design methodologies can be applied. Accommodating people with the highest degree of physiological and/or cognitive challenge ensures broad-spectrum, ambient benefit that improves the digital experience for all people.

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