Leveling The Playing Field, Video Games Empower People With Disabilities

Sep 4, 2019

For people with disabilities, video games can help them feel more included and accepted in social circles. 

“In a video game, you don't know that I have a disability,” Mark Barlet, the founder of The AbleGamers Charity in Kearneysville, Jefferson County, explained. But not everyone with a disability can play video games with a traditional controller. 

Founded in 2004, AbleGamers is an organization that helps people with disabilities play video games with specially made video game controllers. 

“I've seen where a profoundly disabled person mentions that they play a game and all the sudden, while that person was being completely ignored in a crowd, the person next to them says, ‘I play that game too!’ and all of a sudden, they’re friends,” Barlet said.

Take the game system Xbox One, for example. A traditional controller is held with both hands, and your thumbs and pointer fingers are used to make the character or object on the screen move and interact. 


AbleGamers’ employee Greg Haynes uses an Xbox One adaptive controller to play a game called Rocket League.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting



An adaptive controller, allows someone who can’t hold a traditional controller to navigate a video game in a way that’s comfortable for them. The Xbox One adaptive controller, looks like a white, plastic pad with large black buttons built into the device, and outlets along its side to connect it with other external buttons.

“One thing that people don’t think of when they hold a traditional controller is that about 60 percent of your digits are used just to hold the controller,” AbleGamers employee Greg Haynes said. “And for some players with disabilities, based on a number of things, that may not be a reality. So, something like the Xbox adaptive controller, [it] allows you to essentially take the controller, flatten it down, and have it be on a surface, so that you have access to a potential layout of buttons.”

AbleGamers has only six employees. Four are full-time, two are part-time, and then there are a few volunteers. But they work with game developers and engineers to develop these specialized controllers. In some cases, they help people get more complex devices that respond to eye movements, foot taps, breath or finger taps. These kinds of controllers aren’t sold in stores.


This adaptive controller called the Adroit Switchblade was created by AbleGamers and Evil Controllers. It can be used with an Xbox.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting


Some of the devices are made in-house at AbleGamers, but most are either purchased or made elsewhere.

In 2018, AbleGamers said they helped more than 1,400 people with disabilities get back into or start gaming. About 8 percent of those people required intricate, specially made controllers.

Demand for these controllers is high, though, and AbleGamers said they’re only able to help about 30 percent of the requests that come in at any given time.

But some experts are concerned that relying on video games for social interactions (or technology in general) could be more negative than positive. 

“You can't replace [in-person] social interaction,” Shepherd University associate professor of psychology Heidi Dobish said. 

Dobish specializes in child, adolescent development and lifespan social psychology.

“Those that are spending a lot of time on Facebook, research is showing that they tend to have lower self-esteem, because we are seeing an increase in anxiety, depression, loneliness, isolation; those sorts of things.”

Dobish said access to video games for folks with disabilities can help a person feel empowered and create inclusion, but she cautions this shouldn’t replace in-person interactions – especially for young people.


This adaptive controller made for the Xbox One game system was modeled after AbleGamers’ Adroit Switchblade adaptive controller.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Inclusive socialization is one of the main benefits of video games for Jane Timmons-Mitchell, though, a clinical psychologist and senior research associate at the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

She said video games, especially those with educational or social components, can be a great thing for children and adults. In the case of someone with a disability, playing video games with others can help them feel connected.

“One of the things that is pretty well established is that those [video games] can really increase cooperation and social skills,” Timmons-Mitchell said.

Both Dobish and Timmons-Mitchell agree finding balance is key, though, and that encouraging in-person social interactions and time spent outside, away from screens, is hugely beneficial to a person’s mental and physical health – for those with disabilities and for those without. 


This life size power armor from the Fallout video games hangs out here in one of the hallways at the AbleGamers headquarters in Kearneysville, W.Va.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

AbleGamers founder Barlet agrees that moderation and monitoring video game consumption is good. But he said he believes there is still great power through video games – that they can create an avenue where everyone is on the same playing field.

“That's the power of this world that we live in now – that I don't have to be defined by my race, my creed, my LGBT status, [or] my disability. We have those shared spaces, we have those connections,” he said.

From his perspective, getting to play video games gives people the chance to run, jump, create and be anyone they want to be.