“There are a lot of friendships that have been formed and there’s no judgement. Some of our regulars are disabled, some aren’t. No-one sees the disability, they just all play together.”
These are the words of Nicola Jones, community engagement and fundraising officer at Everyone Can, a Manchester-based charity which helps disabled people to game, talk, and take control of their lives by using technology. Whether you view video games as an art form, a learning tool or an entertainment product (perhaps all three?), Everyone Can believes in the medium’s ability to change people’s lives for the better.
The organisation specialises in ‘technology that enriches the lives and independence of disabled people’ through what is known as assistive technology (so any device, software or equipment that helps people work around their challenges) and video games.
“Our first service, which started us as a charity, is the assessments,” says Nicola. “These one-to-one sessions are where someone gets all our time and attention. Our second is the gaming sessions, so we have up to 25 gamers, pre-COVID-19, in the building [and we are] getting them sharing, gaming together and making some friends. Then, our third service is workshops. So, if another disability organisation would like to learn the benefits of assistive technology, my colleagues would show them.”
Assistive technology assessments help people to gain independence through technology, something that most of us are likely to take for granted. Everyone Can has even been able to use voice activation to assist a blind person to control their telephone.
Owing to COVID-19 restrictions, the charity is using Zoom and phone calls. While this may work for small issues, the organisation is finding it a challenge to provide proper support.
“In person, you can properly see them and try different things out,” says Nicola. “All of our equipment is at the centre, so we [would usually be able to] try all of our different assessment methods.”
Disabled people can self-refer or be referred by others (such as family members, carers, health professionals or education professionals) and each assessment is free. The same is true for the charity’s gaming sessions, where (in normal circumstances) each week disabled people can bring their families to the centre to play video games. There’s a day for children and a separate one for adults. The centre can hold 25 children and 25 parents and has four custom-built 150-inch screens, a driving wheel, two virtual reality stations and single player accessible gaming stations.
Something the charity hadn’t expected was the bonds created by parents and carers. “We ask that they stay throughout the session, to know that their child’s OK, and because of that they sit and chat. They forge their own friendships and they share tips. For example, if one of the parents is struggling to pick a high school that will suit their child or if they’re struggling for funding. Two families even ended up going on holiday together.”
Matt Jones brings his two children, Dylan, 10, and Rosie, 8, to gaming sessions at Everyone Can’s centre. Dylan has autism which means that, among other things, he has issues with hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Jones says that his wife thought “well, why don’t we get him a PlayStation and see how that works?” because he tends not to concentrate on much and absorbs lots of information.
As you may have guessed, Dylan loved it and his passion for video games soon blossomed. This love then extended to the rest of the family, who enjoy going to the Everyone Can gaming sessions where Dylan and Rosie have learned a great deal about other people with disabilities just from playing with them. Matt says: “Dylan can get quite obsessive over things. So, if I didn’t talk to him about video games, I don’t know what I’d talk to him about.”
Everyone Can has helped Matt and his family to connect with each other. Both Rosie and Dylan now play games together, with Rosie managing to alter what she’s doing to include the games that Dylan enjoys most (Pokémon) so he joins in when she plays outside.
“Without Everyone Can, Dylan would not have got to the point where he would have invited Rosie to play games,” says Matt. “It has been a wholly positive experience [and] beneficial for both of our kids.”
Stories like Matt, Rosie and Dylan’s highlight just why video games should be made accessible to all. Nicola believes that gaming companies should cater for as wide an audience as possible. “If you can re-programme the buttons to match up with different methods of control, that helps. If you can’t, then we’d struggle to get the game to reconfigure the controls for the people who need them most.”
If you’re wondering how you can help Everyone Can, you can donate money, software and hardware via the website. The charity has scheduled an event called Game Together in September 2021, where Twitch streamers and the gaming community help to raise funds.
While there’s so much that Everyone Can would like to do, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that its first concern is simply opening up again.
“Getting into the games industry is also really important for us,” says Nicola. “As that’s where we get a lot of corporate support through funding and games donated. Getting the word out in the games industry is what we’re still really trying to do.”
Images courtesy of Everyone Can