Steven Spohn knows video games are for everyone, including people with disabilities.
Spohn, 40, has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a genetic disease that affects the central and peripheral nervous systems, as well as voluntary muscle movement. He uses a wheelchair and is on a ventilator but neither is stopping him from improving accessibility and representation in the gaming industry.
He’s COO of AbleGamers, a nonprofit with a mission to improve the overall quality of life for those with disabilities through the power of video games.
AbleGamers is committed to leveling the playing field for people with disabilities.
“We can give you hardware and we can make it where you can play the same as anyone else with a controller,” says Spohn, noting that level playing field, “washes away all the differences and focuses only on what people have in common.”
Spohn played Atari when he was a toddler. He didn’t start gaming again until he was 13.
“I had nurses and one of them was like, ‘you pretty much just stay inside all the time. Why aren’t you playing video games?’”
That’s when Spohn started playing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” on Nintendo. Then in his senior year of high school, a friend of his, who worked in a computer shop, introduced him to the idea of online gaming. He cobbled together a computer using spare parts.“That was sort of a turning point where I would figure out that there was a world where I could go essentially be on a level playing field with everyone else,” he says, noting the best part of online gaming is that you only reveal your disability if you choose to.
Mark Barlet, a service-connected disabled veteran, founded AbleGamers in 2004, after his best friend had a multiple sclerosis attack, which impacted her ability to play video games. Barlet wanted to ensure that no one with a disability had to stop gaming.
Nearly two years later, Spohn came across the website and challenged Barlet, who had said “World of Warcraft” could not be played with only one hand. Spohn wrote an article for the site detailing how to played the game. A reader reached out saying it helped them play the game.
“That was sort of like an epiphany moment for me, because I was like, ‘oh, wow, I can I can write articles and share my knowledge, and it helps other people,’” Spohn says. “I learned very quickly that it was more of a fulfilling feeling to help others than to help myself.”
AbleGamers has helped thousands of people with disabilities become gamers. They know video games allow people with disabilities to experience situations that might be limited or difficult in the real world, and that games give them social networking opportunities.
“We’re humans, we must be entertained,” says Spohn. “And part of that escapism from pain is often playing a $20 video game, so that you’re not thinking about the pain that you’re going through.
He encourages gaming companies to be more inclusive and accessible. “This is not a small group, or a couple of people, who can’t access videogames,” he says. “This is a segment of the population. This is a demographic that needs to be paid attention to.”
Accessibility considerations can include designing games for one-handed play, for people who are color blind, and those who have epilepsy, and more.
AbleGamers launched Accessible Games as a new way to make content to support players with disabilities. They work with gaming studios to help them design better and show them how to include accessibility into their products. They also have player testers who look for ways to make games more accessible.
“You make a game more accessible for everyone by including as many people as you can,” says Spohn.