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7 min read
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Raising Accessibility Awareness: The Voices of Ghosts

Gabriel explains how developers who ignore Accessibility Support aren't just hurting gamers- they are hurting their own bottom line.

Time is a nebulous thing like pain. Just ask Twitch Streamer AccessibleGamer. He has plenty of both on his hands.

Gamer is disabled. There’s nothing  abstract about that, however. There’s no do-overs there. No chance to turn left instead of right, no turning back the clock, and no saying NO to that metaphorical sketchy car ride. It’s pretty clear that his every single day, from yesterday, to next year, is kind of going to suck.

One thing that is equally crystal clear for all to see are his joint passions for both gaming, and raising Disability Awareness.

It’s 5pm and I’m watching him play games through a straw, dumbfounded.

He’s not only playing Warframe, but winning. Even more importantly he is smiling. I ask about the device that appears to make this miracle possible.

He lightheartedly explains they stopped making it 6 years ago and  servicing it 4 years ago. When it finally does fall apart he doesn’t even know what he will do.

Like me, Gamer is a C5. That’s an insider term used to describe catastrophic spinal injury. But unlike me, he didn’t just break his bones- Gamer severed his spinal cord too. He is more paralyzed than not. He relies on a wheelchair just to get around, and adaptive ventilatory peripherals not just to game to game- but much more.

The realization that our society holds people like Gamer in such contempt that he can’t even play Fallout with his friends begins to depress me.

He requires strong prescription medication just to tolerate his existence, yet it doesn’t stop him from delivering critical hits to digital enemies, with the same ease that he spits out uplifting encouragement directed at disabled users in the chat.

Despite simply laying in bed with an adaptive workstation pulled over me, my own C5 is a little less forgiving today. I can’t get comfortable enough to play a game with him onstream- nor even keep socializing with him for much longer. Even though I myself had experienced a near miraculous recovery from my own spinal injury, my back was starting to hurt again, relentlessly so, just like the black days immediately after the accident. A tear rolls down the comer of my eye in response to the pain, punctuating my darkening mood like a thunderclap. I log off Twitch, and amble away in search of strong drink.

I wonder, how did we get here?

                                                                 **********

 

 

About 5.5 million Americans live with some paralysis, and 20.5 percent of all gamers report varying disabilities. By 2022, experts at Business Insider forecast the gaming industry will produce $196 billion in revenue. The notion that the gaming industry, or any modern business for that matter, would aggressively alienate the disabled demographic is stunning. These consumers game longer and spend more. But the reality is that the handicapped are severely under catered to, at both the executive level and the programming one.

 

Companies owe a fiduciary duty to their stockholders. The duty of care requires directors on the board to exercise good business judgment when making decisions on behalf of the corporation. This is just really bad business.  

 

When it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility, executives should be aware that the disabled rely on online gaming more than ever to combat Social Isolation, a specific type of Depression. And Pain Management studies from the University of Washington indicate that gaming may help treat chronic pain. So not just every economic indicator, but every social one as well, is aiming for massive expansion of Accessibility support in said $196 billion dollar gaming industry.

 

But as time ticks down on Gamer’s paralysis controller-peripheral, there are only crickets from the gaming industry.

 

There’s nothing about this situation that makes sense, but I do understand how we got here. And I know what we need to do as a whole to get out of this mess together.

 

About a decade ago I worked with an organization called the American Chronic Pain Association to help share my own story with the state legislature, and other bodies, to both lobby and educate. During a serious medical flare-up the quality of my own outreach began to noticeably suffer- and I had to step down. Coinciding nearly simultaneously with my departure, the legislature enacted a series of draconian measures that effectively stripped specialist pain management from State Medicaid coverage, devastating the disabled community. I recently checked in with the ACPA and was told we haven’t had a local state lobbyist since I left 5 years ago.

 

The disabled community suffers greatly for lack of champions. We struggle to find and put forward strong public speakers whose health is consistent enough to first build a public base of support, and then sustain the engagement to push change through. And Disabled Americans only comprise 3.1% of all television characters- leaving us effectively hidden from sight, and more off of societal radar than on it. In a workplace known for Crunch Time, it should also serve as no shock that developers with severe handicaps can rarely hang in there long enough to join reach management and ensure we have a voice there speaking for us.

 

Finally, the last several years of national conversation have been largely dominated by other social causes of incredible merit whose time is very much now. Yet that can be tough on other causes because there are only so many words available on a page. The COVID-19 pandemic has by and large monopolized just about every Health story, article, and blog too. It feels like we’re drowning.

 

In the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to have the ear of a handful of highly influential Quality Assurance managers and directors. I actively plugged my push for Accessibility expansion and was blatantly ignored on every occasion. Not just pindrops heard- but total non-response. I even danced with the devil enough to try and persuade said by lofting in the superficial PR benefits Corporation X would receive from such an “inclusive” initiative. Nothing but crickets.

 

This is what it’s like not to be seen or heard.

 

And, like being a ghost, none of it makes sense. Like Patrick Swayze in the beginning of his own seminal take on that supernatural love story, I feel like I’m screaming at Demi Moore just to notice me- and I wonder if I’m losing my mind.

 

A penpal of mine in a disability related subedit described today that he was gaming with one hand on an adaptive controller, and one foot on a regular controller. There’s things we can do, easily, for people like that with some additional programming, accessibility design, and advocating the continuing evolution of hardware peripherals. And it sounds like unless we step up soon it’s only a matter of time before AccessibleGamer isn’t even able to play, live, and inspire others the way that he wants to. We need every single one of him, every Steve Spohn, and every single Tyler Trewhaine we can get. We barely have any leaders- and it feels like the ones we do get, leave us too soon.

 

Right now the elephant in the room are the horrible Activision Blizzard and Riot work condition lawsuits and the discussion thereby raised. Equity for women and people of color in the gaming industry are paramount, and deserve all the attention they can get right now. No one likes social co-optation, particularly by disingenuous actors. But if the community also feels there is room for one more voice at the table of negotiation increased social responsibility in both our workplace and our game stores then that would be the most welcome breath of fresh air.

 

New industry roles for positions such as Accessibility Content Designer, extra-flexible work hours for handicapped employees, and adoption of best practices as laid out by organizations such as AbleGamers.Org are sorely needed. We need actual Accessibility Programs at major devs, run by and for the disabled, not listening sessions and contemplation. And we need basic expectations as cheap and as reasonable as Colorblind mode to be fulfilled every time we load up a game.

 

After all, it’s not just your ethical responsibility, it’s a fiduciary one.

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