Gaming gets more accessible for people with disabilities

For Steve Spohn, who needs a ventilator to breathe and lacks the strength to propel his wheelchair, video gaming has been a virtual lifechanger.

Spohn, 41, has spinal muscular atrophy. His body doesn’t make protein; his spine isn’t “sending messages to [his] muscles,” he said. The effect is a slow but certain shutting down.

He was just 9 when he lost the ability to breathe on his own and switched to a ventilator. By 10 his arms could no longer push his wheelchair. The physical world presented more obstacles with each passing year.

“Gaming for me has always been an equalizer when I couldn’t go and do whatever activity was popular,” he said.

Xbox estimates there are 400 million gamers worldwide, like Spohn,with disabilities, and it has been taking steps to make its hardware and software more accessible to them. While advocates often find the virtual world more accessible than the one outside, they say more needs to be done by tech companies looking to capture the estimated $2 billion market for gamers with disabilities.

There are many aspects that go into accessible gaming, from the physical hardware to the software and game design, and Xbox is trying to find out where its customers with disabilities are hitting roadblocks, said Kaitlyn Jones, a Wayne native and Xbox’s gaming accessibility program manager.

Instead of venturing into the physical world, where he was “confronted by mortal enemies like stairs,” Spohn, a Pittsburgh resident, met his friends through such games as Ultima Online, a massive, multiplayer fantasy that aims to approximate real life with an expansive landscape — and providesscores of people to meet.

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