Playing video games can help people with disabilities interact in a way that almost nothing else does says Julian Lee, chief executive of Aidis Trust.
The Trust, which is a small Stockport-based charity founded in 1975, uses technology to help and support disabled people.
The company also brings gaming to young people with disabilities through its Everyone Can Game service, which has been running for the last three years.
“We want to make sure that gaming is accessible, and that just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself,” says Lee.
“We also want to bring back the social element. There are such limited activities that groups of disabled people can do – it’s like a Venn diagram with 20 circles and the one area where they intersect is the thing they can all do.”
Despite these challenges the Trust has seen huge benefits to the community groups during it visits, and is hoping to get its own centre in the near future.
“We went to a Northwich group and the organiser’s jaw dropped,” he says.
“They said ‘look at Nathan – it’s incredible, we’ve never seen him like this’. He was laughing and joking and they said ‘it’s the first time he’s joined in – he usually sits in the corner with his toys’.
“That lasts the whole session and if he knows the activity group will be gaming he will be excited and asking his parents questions before and then waxing lyrical after.”
This is often true across the board, says Lee, with cooperative gaming giving children who usually struggle to communicate a way to interact.
“In that room the disabilities seem invisible,” he says.
The Trust’s greatest success story is a young man they’ve been helping since 1998 who has severe cerebral palsy.
“We got him an accessible computer which helped with his education and managed to get him to university – with such severe cerebral palsy it’s almost unheard of.
“However he couldn’t talk and that was next barrier as he went from a specialist school to a mainstream environment where no one could understand him.
“He dropped out and we came in again and showed him the latest communication software, which enabled him to have the confidence to go back.
“He graduated last year with a psychology degree.”
There is usually technology to suit every person no matter what their needs – hence the name of the service ‘Everyone Can Game’ – and Lee says there are only four examples in his 17 years where he couldn’t think of any technology that would be of benefit.
“With the games, for example, sometimes they’ll be very basic,” he says.
“They can go up to Fifa and other AAA titles, right down to things that the average gamer wouldn’t see as a game, like pressing a single button twice to aim and fire an arrow.”
The Trust will often adapt specialist technology for disabled people, such as the iGaze which is a computer controlled by eye movements, and merge it with existing games.
“We use the iGaze specialist tech and a game called Dirt 3 specifically because that can be used by controlling four keys,” says Lee.
“So we map the tech to different areas of the screen then they just look at different areas to break, reverse and go right and left.
“That’s why Everyone Can Game is basically a mission to make sure everyone can game together, and we’ve been pushed and challenged but we’re not been beaten. Long may that continue.”
As technology evolves so will the service that Aidis offers, says Lee.
“It’s never-ending because as soon as tech says ‘we’re not going to produce any new tech’ or someone doesn’t have any new needs, which is unlikely, it’s only then that we can say we’ll stop helping people.
“There’s always new things that we can show them. For example, we’re using the Amazon Echo now, so it’s not just bespoke adaptations, it’s mainstream as well.”
This flexibility is important for a company that has to be constantly thinking about how to adapt what’s already out there.
“There are so many disabled people out there – I think nine to ten per cent of this country is registered disabled – but companies making games for just disabled people won’t make money,” says Lee.
“If we went to a gaming development company that’s making games for mass market and said make one that’s disability accessible we’d basically break their game – it won’t work.
“The range of disabilities is almost infinite so you can’t make a product that’s going to apply to everyone – it’s a niche market.”