The terrible, fantastic life of AbleGamers COO Steven Spohn

This story is just one reason he wanted to get on-stage at SXSW and deliver a speech about finding strength in any body. Across all forms of media, people with disabilities have fewer role models than the able-bodied population, and also fewer tools designed specifically for the ways they interact with their environments.

Video game developers are waking up to this fact, thanks in large part to AbleGamers, YouTube personalities like Shane Burcaw and activists like Alex Dacy. Many studios nowadays are implementing accessibility options like subtitles, colorblind modes, button re-mapping and co-pilot features out-of-the-box. Uncharted 4 shipped with an option that allowed players to hold down a button rather than repeatedly tapping it, for instance, and Microsoft proved the market for customizable, accessible gamepads with the $100 Xbox Adaptive Controller.

It’s a start.

“Xbox might be amazing, but they’re only one organization,” Spohn said. “They need to continue on what they’re doing, but PlayStation needs to jump in, Nintendo needs to jump in. They all have different parts they can play and we can all push different parts of the narrative to have everyone included so everyone can play.”

Spohn has been with AbleGamers for 15 years, and over that time, it’s grown from a small charity bringing in $50,000 a year and begging for spots at trade shows, to an in-demand organization earning close to $1 million each year. That cash will come in handy, because there’s still plenty of work to do, like advocating for better representation in video games and popular culture alike.

Xbox Adaptive Controller

“The needle has moved, but it went from zero to one, not zero to 100,” Spohn said. “There are 12 characters on TV that now have a disability, instead of zero amongst 10,000. So is there more? Yes, there is more. Is there enough? No, there’s not.”

Spohn points out that one in five people has a disability, yet that ratio is not represented in TV, movies or video games. It’s not that he wants every other on-screen person to have a disability, but there’s clearly room for improvement — and he’s not talking about giving the villain an eye patch. What he wants is truth.

This applies to everyday, real-world interactions with people with disabilities, too.

“People with disabilities are still largely not represented.”

“Tech is where you would think that most people with disabilities would be, and yet people with disabilities are still largely not represented even there,” Spohn said. “We’re seeing it now with the corona thing going on, these companies that have said for years and years, ‘Oh, you’re so smart, you’re amazing. I’m sorry you use a wheelchair. We just can’t open up this position remotely. There’s too many protocols in the way, you have to come to the office. There’s no way this could ever be remote.’ Now, nine quarters of the industry are working from home remotely, so what changed?”

AbleGamers at the NY Abilities Expo 2016

The coronavirus epidemic has shifted the way the world does business, with entire countries on lockdown and companies urging their employees to work from home. Teleconferencing tools didn’t suddenly appear overnight; they’ve been viable for years, but many corporations have limited their use. This has effectively shut out an entire community of potential employees — people with disabilities that make it hard for them to navigate an office, but otherwise don’t affect their performance.

“Those barriers had to be removed because there was a health crisis and it’s exposed that a lot of these corporations didn’t want to employ people from home,” Spohn said. “Didn’t want to give those opportunities to the disability community. They could have. They chose not to.”

Inclusion is a choice. AbleGamers’ mission is to help companies see where they can do better, how they can catalyze new audiences, and what they can do to bring video games to the people who can use them the most. As the charity’s most prominent advocate, Spohn has discovered the depth of his own power as a positive influence, and it’s as terrifying as it is fantastic.

AbleGamers at the NY Abilities Expo 2015

He was running a Dear-Abby-style column called Ask Steve for a while, and one day he received a message from someone saying, “Hey, I was thinking about committing suicide yesterday and I didn’t because what you said resonated with me. Thank you.”

It threw Spohn for a loop.

“I went, ‘Oh crap. Uh, okay,'” Spohn said. “And I realized all of a sudden how powerful words are. Even somebody who sits up there and talks every day about how powerful we can be to one another, it didn’t really sink in to me that this could have some amazing consequences. So, whether you’re going to the grocery store and getting a Twix bar, or whether you’re talking to your friend and convincing them that living for another Twix is worth it, you’ve got some amazing power if you just realize that you have it.”

Yes, even you.

Images: Engadget (Xbox Adaptive Controller); AbleGamers (abilities expo); AbleGamers (group shot)

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