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Access all areas? Video games for disabled children and young people

How are disabled people represented in games, and what games are available to them?
An XBox Adaptive Controller
© University of Sheffield

We tend to think of the internet as an open space available to everyone. Increasingly, even rudimentary activities, like ordering a drink at a bar, assumes access to expensive mobile technology and knowledge of how to use it but, in reality, many barriers still exist preventing universal technological adoption.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have access to a laptop, desktop PC or tablet, and disabled children are even more likely to lack access to the hardware, software, connectivity and adapted devices needed to enjoy digital spaces. Since figures show that around 40% of disabled children live in poverty, the problem is further compounded.

Children have a right to play – a right set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. And yet, the rights of disabled children are not always upheld. In the ‘real world’, disabled children are less likely to join clubs and activities, to access their local park and to have opportunities to play freely. But the same can be true of virtual play too. If video gaming is now recognised as an important part of childhood play, then exclusionary technologies, game designs, negative representations and attitudes all deny these children their basic rights. Let’s consider these in turn.

Accessibility

For YouTuber Steve Saylor video game images appear far away and blurry. It makes gaming hard. “The amount of times I have seen a ‘game over’ screen in my lifetime… it’s a lot and that stuck with me.” In an article for the BBC, Steve recounted a bittersweet childhood spent watching family members play games that, for him, seemed impossible. Then Steve had an epiphany: “I’d been telling myself that I sucked at video games, but in reality games sucked for me.”

Now his channel documents the trials, tribulations and genuine progress being made to bring accessibility into video gaming.

In 2010 the US government passed the Communications and Video Accessibility Act, establishing minimum accessibility requirements across the industry. In 2018, Xbox released an Adaptive Controller for gamers with limited mobility. Within the games themselves accessibility options are becoming normalised: making it easier for players with motor, hearing and vision impairments (even simple adjustments like text size and subtitles can make a big difference to a large number of players).

Meanwhile, an increasing number of charities, such as Special Effects and AbleGamers, aim to give disabled children equal access to gaming by providing assistive technologies and advocating their interests within the industry.

Representation

It’s not just access to games which is an issue. It’s also about what is – and isn’t – in them. As with other media – whether text, television, film or books – we need to think carefully about how disability is represented in video games. Too often disability is simply missing. Disabled children need to see themselves represented in the cultural texts they interact with; as much a part of imaginary worlds as their own.

Where disability is represented, lazy stereotypes persist, depicting disabled people pitiable or pathetic; sinister and evil; a burden or a ‘super cripple’ — that is, someone who “overcomes” their disability to “inspire” (non-disabled) others.

The ‘Adulteration’ of Play

The attitudes of those around disabled children can significantly influence their access to playful gaming. Parents and carers of disabled children are much more likely to mediate their children’s gaming experiences than parents of non-disabled children. This is in part due to the physical barriers they face and to protect disabled children from the increased abuse they can experience online.

But it is also because, for disabled children, play is often dominated by adult agendas focused on rehabilitation rather than on play for its own sake. Disabled children are subjected to a ‘play-as-progress’ rhetoric – which positions play as a means for ‘normalisation’ rather than for fun and enjoyment.

The ‘adulteration’ of play, or the contamination of play by adult concerns, is also reflected in the literature on disabled children and video games, which increasingly focuses on how digital gamification can deliver therapy to disabled children.

While we want to celebrate and explore all children’s learning through digital technologies, for disabled children, in particular, it is important not to forget that gaming should be fun.

Finally

Over the course of this week we will explore how videogames deal with the issue of accessibility and representation, and how we – as players, parents and practitioners – can help make the digital realm a space for everyone.

Have the issues discussed in this piece affected you or someone you know? Do you think a more inclusive game world might help shape a more inclusive ‘real’ world?

Katherine Runswick Cole

References

Emancipating play: dis/abled children, development and deconstruction by Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick‐Cole (2009)

© University of Sheffield
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