Giving Control to Disabled Gamers

A Sip and Puff Xbox 360 ControllerFans of video games come in all shapes and sizes, but most of all with different levels of abilities. Those living with physical disabilities who once thought it impossible to indulge in this entertaining pastime are finding new options in the world of adaptive controls.

Two companies, KY Enterprises and Broadened Horizons are creating and distributing personalized and adapted video game controllers which add a new dimension of independence and enjoyment to disabled gamers' lives.

Ken Yankelevitz started working in the field in 1981, when he was first contacted by Atari who referred to him a quadriplegic teenager looking for means to play video games. His company KY Enterprises now designs controllers adapted to the needs of individual players. Read More...

“I was an aerospace engineer working for McDonnell Douglas designing flight simulators, and when approached by Atari, I applied my design skills and knowledge to making adaptive equipment for quadriplegics and others who have lost the ability to use their hands due to illness or accident,” explains Yankelevitz on his website.

The degree in complexity of new video gaming controls and consoles has proved a challenge in creating adaptive controllers.

“The way I interface to the different game consoles is by wiring into one of the manufacturer’s game pads and connecting my custom setups to the game pad. The Atari was very simple: Start, Select, one button, and an 8-way joystick. Now the game pads have twelve switches and two analog and one digital joystick. Since some games use all these operations I try to offer them on my custom setups,” said Yankelevitz, in a news report.

His website currently sells mouth operated “sip-puff” joysticks for the PlayStation 2, the original Xbox and the Xbox 360 for individuals living with quadriplegia and spinal chord injuries who have no or very limited use of their arms. The controllers range in price from $225-260 USD.

KY Enterprises also offers big-button controllers for those who are limited in their hand movements and dexterity. The joystick functions by responding to the weight of the hand on the buttons and sells for $75 USD.

“Our customers are children up to middle-aged. For most, it is one of the only things they can do and be on an equal playing field with their friends,” explains Yankelevitz.

Though he was one of the first in his field, Yankelevitz is not the only distributor of adaptive video game products. Broadened Horizons is another important example, notably because its president, Mark Felling, is more than an electronic engineer – he also lives with quadriplegia.

Though not a huge gamer, Felling felt the need to put his background to good use, for himself and others in a similar position, after a plane crash in 2003 left him paralyzed from the armpits down. With his expertise, he has redesigned a number of controllers multiple times for a slew of varying levels of disability.

“The more complex the control requirements...the more difficult it is for individuals with upper extremity/dexterity limitations to play those games,” explains Felling in a news article.

“For example, a racing game that only requires steering and gas and brakes is far more easy to interact with than a first-person shooter where you have to move two analog joysticks in a coordinated fashion while simultaneously activating multiple buttons or even worse, complex multi-button combinations.”

Broadened Horizons offers a variety of accessibility devices to improve the quality of life of those living with limited use of their limbs. Some of the gaming accessories sold include one-handed controllers, cap controllers which users wear on their head, as well as switch-adapted Wii controllers.

Though adaptive gaming has attracted increased attention in recent years, mainstream video game system developers are still lagging in recognizing that important segment of the market. Felling finds this particularly frustrating, as companies offer little help to third-party accessory developers.

“Those of us who tried to make specialized or custom controllers have to reverse engineer everything. That adds significant cost and complexity,” says Felling. “I think everyone understands their desire to maintain some control over their products, but at least some willingness to work with those of us serving disabled populations with unique needs, possibly through specific agreements, would be very helpful.”

“When Microsoft charges $500,000 just to talk to them about creating a controller for their Xbox platforms... it is rather frustrating. Sony and Nintendo leave their platforms a bit more open to third-party manufacturers but are not forthcoming about sharing information,” Felling deplores.