After years of being ignored by the video gaming industry, gamers with disabilities are building the community and technology they need | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

After years of being ignored by the video gaming industry, gamers with disabilities are building the community and technology they need

'It’s actually what I learned as a great escape from having a body that’s not able, and a mind that’s willing.'

click to enlarge Steve Spohn at home - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Steve Spohn at home

Pushing a button on a video game controller doesn't require a lot of physical effort for the average gamer. There are maybe a few millimeters of movement involved in moving a joystick or working a handheld controller. But for gamers with physical disabilities, those movements can be difficult or impossible. So what options exist for them to pursue their passion for gaming? 

If you’d asked Steve Spohn that question 10 years ago, he would tell you that there were next to none. 

“The industry back then didn’t care, didn’t think about it at all,” he says. 

Spohn, a lifelong Pittsburgher, is the chief operating officer of The AbleGamers Charity, a nonprofit dedicated to making video games more accessible for people with disabilities. Last year, he was named Global Gaming Citizen at The Game Awards for his work in assistive technology; he is a Twitch partner who regularly streams his current gaming obsession, Rocket League; and in addition to his gaming exploits, Spohn is a writer.

“I’ve been playing video games for years,” he says. “It’s actually what I learned as a great escape from having a body that’s not able, and a mind that’s willing.”

Spohn has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), which causes a person’s muscles to degenerate over time, or as he describes it: “It slowly takes away my abilities to do anything.” Spohn’s used a wheelchair his entire life and could manage many tasks on his own early on, but as time passed, he’s had to adapt—and games were no exception. In high school, he found a community in the high fantasy roleplaying game Ultima Online and solidified his passion for games.

“Just the idea of getting to interact with other people and not have to worry about real life barriers was really what was so intriguing for me,” he says. “I made friends that carried over to real life. It was really a differentiator for me, from what I’d experienced in real life."

As he entered his 20s, Spohn was finding workarounds to playing games. Though he couldn’t reach the keyboard, he started using a tarter scraper tool — the kind used by dentists — to hit the buttons. Eventually, Spohn started looking for other games and new tools to play them.

That’s when he found AbleGamers. 

Back then, it was a resource blog run by founders Mark Barlet and Stephanie Walker. Multiple sclerosis limited Walker's ability to play games without assistance. In looking for resources to help Walker play, the two friends realized she probably wasn't alone.

What spurred Spohn’s initial interaction with Barlet was a post Barlet wrote on the blog claiming World of Warcraft, the immensely popular MMORPG, could not be played with only a mouse.

“And I knew that was not true, because I was only using a mouse and I was able to play World of Warcraft,” Spohn says. “So, I was posting on there going, ‘Ha ha! You’re wrong! You suck.’ And instead of keeping me away, he sent me a message saying, ‘You think you can do better? Then write an article.’”

Spohn wrote the article and thought that would be the end of it. But then he received a message thanking him for his story had helped someone play. So he wrote another article, and more messages followed.

“Before I knew it, I was hooked on the ability to help other people,” he says. More than a decade later, Spohn is still helping. 

AbleGamers pushes for accessibility in many aspects of gaming: requiring subtitles for players with hearing impairments, or raising money to get players with neuromuscular conditions controllers they can use with their lips and breath. The charity has a staff that can guide players with disabilities to the assistive controllers they need, and there's a grant program that will provide the funds to the purchase that tech. 

“The industry was not always supportive,” Spohn says. “It’s taken a long time to bring it around.”

For the last two and a half years, AbleGamers has worked with Microsoft on the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and they’ve made assistive technology compatible with every modern game system except for the Nintendo Switch.

AbleGamers also has programs beyond those built for the gamers themselves, including providing assistive tech to hospitals and accessibility guides for developers.

While streaming games on Twitch, Spohn is often asked how he's able to play at all, and he's happy to explain his setup. He says those interactions provide an opportunity to normalize people with disabilities, because "we [are] still often segregated — we often keep people away with disabilities — so some people grow up and they've never met someone with a disability," he says. 

“I want to prove to people that you can continue to game even if you have a severe disability,” says Spohn, who uses a 1,600 DPI mouse and a hat that tracks his head movements to push keyboard buttons. "And I’m not using a lot of tech to do it.”

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