We sat down with Mark Saville from SpecialEffect, a UK-based charity who is a customer with Heart Internet. SpecialEffect gives people with physical disabilities the tools they need to do something many of us take for granted – play video games.
Tailoring the adaptive technology to match the range of movement someone has can be tricky work. Mark tells us about what SpecialEffect does, what kind of results they’ve seen, and how anyone can help.
What is SpecialEffect and what do you do?
We’re a unique charity that helps people with many kinds of physical disabilities to play video games.
If that sounds relatively unimportant, you should see Arlo, a bright young boy we helped. He has cerebral palsy and his limited hand movement can’t cope with a standard games controller. So when his friends would come around, he’d usually end up sitting inside alone. Our team modified his games controller setup to match his hand movement capabilities, and now he’s over the moon as he takes them all on at FIFA.
By levelling the playing field in gaming, we’re bringing inclusion, friendship, confidence, therapy, and an improved quality of life to people who could previously only sit and watch everyone else have all the run.
And we’re not just helping kids – our doors are open to everyone, including accident victims, service personnel with combat injuries, people with congenital and progressive conditions, stroke patients, and others.
What kind of technologies are available, and what are the different ways people can play games?
There’s loads of tech available that might help, but the key is tailoring it exactly to match the particular abilities of the individual we’re helping. Sometimes it’s remapping controller buttons or changing joystick sensitivity. Other times, we get the soldering iron out and make custom modifications. It’s all about joining the dots – connecting the person’s abilities with the technology – and often coming up with unique combinations, such as using voice commands, muscle twitch switches, and eye control together.
For example, Ajay has very minimal movement available. So we developed a setup that uses a sensitive micro joystick he can use as a mouse. With this, he can play FPS games using his chin, another switch that captures wrist movement, and a headset for voice commands.
Can you tell us a bit about your own background and your involvement with SpecialEffect?
I got involved with SpecialEffect through Dr. Mick Donegan, SpecialEffect’s founder. He recognised that access to leisure and fun through video games could be immensely beneficial for people with physical disabilities, so he took the decision to start SpecialEffect to provide just that.
The charity has grown phenomenally over its eight years of existence, and we now have an accessible games room where the people we help can try out control setups. Three years ago, I was lucky enough to join his small team of gamers, technologists, therapists, and fundraisers.
I’m old enough to remember when Space Invaders took over the world, and it’s been amazing to watch the rise of video games as a huge part of everyday life. They’re bringing people together across the world in fun and friendship, and including disabled people in that community is just so important.
You can’t put a price on the smiles of joy that happen when someone with a disability plays Minecraft or races a car with their family for the first time. Football-mad parents whose children can’t play the real game are soon reeling from their first thrashing on the FIFA pitch. And soldiers are back online to fight with their guilds without their opponents knowing they’re missing several fingers.
And we’re discovering even more benefits every day. Escapism from their disability, respite time for carers, therapy to stimulate muscles, a better work-life balance…the list goes on.
What’s the most rewarding thing about being involved with SpecialEffect?
Getting emails from the people we’ve helped, like this one from Ben’s mother:
“SpecialEffect have been a lifeline for my son Ben.
“When he developed a left-sided weakness from his brain tumour, a lot of his hobbies became too difficult, and he stopped doing them, including playing on his beloved Xbox, because he could no longer move the controls. As a 14-year-old boy, this was devastating, especially because it was also a way of socialising with his friends.
“Being referred to SpecialEffect was a real turning point for Ben. They didn’t stop until they found the best way to adapt the controller for him so he could enjoy playing his Xbox again, including a home visit to really understand his needs.
“Ben’s been robbed of so much by his illness, but thanks to SpecialEffect he is playing his Xbox again and enjoying it as much as ever.”
What kind of support do you get from the community?
There are so many wonderful people, including those in the gaming industry and community, who have been immensely supportive and have recognised the value of our work. All our services are free, and we don’t sell any of the equipment, so it can be difficult to survive as a charity. But the stories of the people we help on our YouTube channel really help get our message across to inspire people to help.
If someone reading this wants to support SpecialEffect, what can they do to help?
We welcome all kinds of fundraising. Gaming-related events, bake-offs, glass and fire walks, pub quizzes, abseils, tough-guy challenges, any way you can have fun while raising money.
Every February, we run GameBlast, the UK’s largest gaming marathon weekend. There’s also TwinTown16, a madcap Anglo-French car rally that’ll be taking place in May next year. Plus, we have a brilliant five-a-side tournament in the shadow of Wembley Stadium coming up in September, and we’ll be at Insomnia55 at the end of August.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting their own charity or non-profit organisation?
Believe 150% in what you’re doing, and take time to show your appreciation when people support you. And use the power of social media to tell your story and thank everyone who helps you on the way.