SpecialEffect – Helping Disabled Gamers Stay Competitive

How often do you play video games? Are they something you play in every spare minute? Daily? Few times a week? Do you play them with friends at parties? Whatever your relationship with them, if you enjoy playing video games then I’m sure you’d miss them if they left your life suddenly and without your control.

In the UK many disabled people struggle to play video games. I’m not necessarily talking about struggling to play them at a competitive level, but in some cases they can’t play them full stop. There are people who desperately want to join in the fun of one of the nation’s favourite past times but just can’t manage with traditional game controllers.

At a recent video game event, I saw a small queue of people at a booth watching a screen. The screen had a racing game running, probably just a trailer I thought as the person sat watching it wasn’t holding a controller. What struck me as odd was that at the end of the video the people in the queue all cheered for the person sat watching the screen and someone else sat down.

When I went over to investigate I noticed a small box in the bottom right of the screen showing the viewer’s eyes. As they looked to the sides of the screen, the car would follow. They were controlling the car with their eyes, and with remarkable accuracy. This was my first chance to see the work that the SpecialEffect charity do for people all over the country.

I went and joined the queue, eager to try this for myself. They sat me down and adjusted the camera. After looking at the centre of a target for a few seconds the game was calibrated to me and the race began. I was struck by how well the technology worked, even in the busy environment I was testing it in. The car followed me perfectly, slowing and speeding up depending on how high or low I was looking, and besides a slight bump crossing the finish line I finished the race almost flawlesssly. I was amazed.

I sat down to talk to Mick Donegan, founder and CEO of the SpecialEffect charity, to get an idea of the work they do. What follows is a talk about a charity that, as a gamer, I can’t put enough of my support behind. While it may seem that helping people play video games is not the most important thing in the world, the difference they are making in peoples lives is amazing.

Laura: What is SpecialEffect?

Mick: SpecialEffect is a charity that was specifically set up to enhance the quality of life of everyone who has a disability through cutting-edge games and leisure technology. We do this by assessing and loaning equipment to people all around the UK that have a severe disability and who would like to get into gaming. We also give advice to developers on how to make their games more accessible.

Laura: And what is your role at SpecialEffect?

Mick: Founder and CEO. This covers everything from admin to assessments – the face-to-face work with the people we support is far and away my favourite way to spend my time!

Laura: How did SpecialEffect first start? What was the inspiration for starting the charity?

Mick: The charity started because it had to! I’ve worked in the field of disability and technology for a long time and, time and time again, parents of children with disabilities and people with disabilities themselves kept saying that they found it difficult or impossible to access mainstream videogames and leisure technology. There was nowhere to go for independent and expert advice and support to help them use technology to actually have fun! So that’s why we started, because no one else in the UK was offering that kind of service.

Laura: What sort of methods have you come up with to help people to play video games? What are the most common methods you use?

Mick: There are no “common” methods. We look at everyone as an individual, with individual needs. Because we help everyone, with any disability, of any age, the range of requirements is huge. That’s why the specialist charity is needed, with specialist staff, and specialist skills, who are dedicated to meeting their needs.

Laura: How do the people you help react when you provide these solutions to them?

Mick: When people ask what the charity does and we say that we help to enhance people’s quality-of-life through technology for video games and creative expression, some people think that the work that we do isn’t particularly important. However, time after time, what people with disabilities actually want and need most is to be helped to find the technology that will help them enjoy themselves – a way to interact, compete and make new friends. Video games, for example, are a perfect way to meet this need.

The reaction of people we help is often remarkable – one parent of a boy we helped who had been paralysed by a progressive condition said that it was as if her son had “been given a whole new life”.

Laura: What sort of reactions do you tend to get doing things like allowing people to play games using eye tracking at conventions?

Mick: Many people are taken by surprise! For example, with gaze controlled video games, many people find it quite challenging at first. However, hard-core gamers are amazing. They pick up new forms of control amazingly quickly when non-gamers would be struggling for a very long time just to get started!

Laura: How much does it take in donations to be able to continue supporting people the way you do?

Mick: We don’t charge for the work we do. Anyone, anywhere in the UK can ask us for help and, if appropriate, we will buy and lend the necessary video games access technology to try out for themselves.

For this reason, donations are our lifeblood. As I said above, many non-gamers regard what we’re doing as unimportant and trivial. However, gamers get it. They fully understand where we’re coming from, why we do what we do, and why it is so critically important to the quality-of-life of people less fortunate than themselves. In fact, many of them said that they can simply not imagine a life without being able to play video games. There are already a growing number of gamers who are supporting us in a variety of ways, whether through events of their own, e.g. games marathons, or through regular donations. In fact we just opened up a page on our website for just this purpose.

Laura: Is there any way that people who can’t afford to donate to your charity can help out your cause?

Mick: If people can’t afford to donate themselves, they could like us on Facebook or simply re-tweet. If they’re interested in co-ordinating an event of some kind, we will give you all the support you need. Please contact Hannah – hannah@specialeffect.org.uk – for more information.

Laura: Do you have any last words for our readers?

Mick: Firstly, many thanks to you for your interest in our work. As I said, on principle our services are free of charge so without the support of people like yourself we would simply go belly up. Support from gamers is our lifeblood. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to carry on and the lives of many severely disabled people would be much the poorer. Whether it’s a donation, re-tweet, liking us on Facebook or whatever, please join the SpecialEffect team by doing what you can to help.

Who SpecialEffect are helping

Below are some more specific examples of people that SpecialEffect has helped to continue playing games. They include children with muscular conditions, those who find fine motor skills more difficult and injured servicemen unable to play games like they used to.


For most parents, watching your four year old girl play a computer game is nothing special, but for Charlotte Nott’s dad it means the world.

In December 2010 Charlotte contracted a very aggressive form of meningitis and unfortunately lost all four of her limbs. While she adapted amazingly to her situation and got on with life as usual, there were activities that, while important to her, she could not participate in any more due to them being too difficult. Playing video games was something she really enjoyed, but loosing her limbs made it too difficult for her to continue enjoying them.

Charlotte and her family visited SpecialEffect and spent a few hours working out how she could continue to be involved with video games and computers. She was able to enjoy computer bowling, colouring activities and jigsaws on a level playing field with others. The family left on a high, extremely excited by the host of new ways they could have fun and be creative with their little girl.

SpecialEffect are regularly working with Charlotte with technology like the eye-gaze camera system and have loaned her specially adapted controllers (like a Wii remote that has been made lighter for her to be able to use comfortably). Her dad said that “It’s unbelievable. She loves it.”


When Craig’s dad saw a video online for one of SpecialEffect’s one- handed controller setups he contacted them saying that his son, rifleman Craig Wood had recently lost both his legs, his nose and his left hand in Afghanistan. Having seen the “XCM Re-mapper” and “Saitek Aviator Joystick” in use he wanted to know if his son could try out the technology before investing in buying them himelf.

Due to the complicated nature of the equiment, SpecialEffect visited Craig at his home in Doncaster and helped set the equipment up for him. He took to it instantly and has been loaned the equipment to use. A week later his dad was asked how he was getting on with the new setup and replied “Yes, going good, never off it!”


For James, being able to remain competitive at the games he used to love was important, not just being able to play them. He contacted SpecialEffect asking for help with his Xbox 360 saying, “Hi, I am an injured soldier in the British Army and due to my injury, I have lost the use of my left hand now. I just want to play the games I play with the efficiency I used to be able to with two hands.”

SpecialEffect met with James and allowed him to try several different controller options until they found one that allowed him to have levels of accuracy and control he was happy with. He soon contacted them to say “I am writing back to say I have been using the controller since it arrived and I find it really useful.”

Ella and Chloe

Ella and Chloe are a pair of young girls from Oxfordshire who both suffer from conditions that effect their motor control. Because of this, they find it difficult to join in with their friends when it comes to physical activities, which can lead to them feeling left out.

After visiting the SpecialEffect Games Room with their parents, they were introduced to the Xbox Kinect. Their parents were shown how to set it up and the staff on hand helped them to find games that they could play by themselves without assistance and without becoming frustrated. They instantly took to Fruit Ninja and Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster, getting engaged and having fun in a way that they had previously not been able to.

Julie, Ella’s mum, was overwhelmed. “Thank you so much – it was brilliant,” she said. “Ella was chattering non-stop about it. I actually think it has made her hand/eye co-ordination better already. We cannot thank SpecialEffect enough for giving Ella this chance.”

Since their visit, SpecialEffect have helped both Ella and Chloe by loaning and setting up equipment and software for both families so that they can continue to enjoy video games at home.


For nine year old Reece, football is everything. He absolutely loves the sport but unfortunately doesn’t have the fine motor skills to play football games like FIFA with a standard controller due to the small button layout.

SpecialEffect set Reece up with a special controller that had larger joysticks and buttons which he could more easily use by himself. Thanks to their help he and his dad can play football together, something that had previously seemed out of their reach.


For Ellie, developing a muscular condition meant that as time went on, she found herself less and less able to use a Wii remote. She reached a point where she couldn’t lift a stanard Wii controller for very long and as such found it very hard to join in with her friends playing games like Just Dance. SpecialEffect created a special lightweight Wii controller for her so that she could continue playing on a level playing field with her friends.

I am truly amazed by the work that SpecialEffect are doing in the UK. Thanks to them many people who would have had to say goodbye to gaming are now able to continue enjoying this type of entertainment. Not everyone can afford to donate money to charity, but even just spreading the word or sharing this article with people who may be able to donate and talk to people about the work they do helps a lot.

Mick told me in a later conversation that any game developers out there interested in making their games more accessible to more people who otherwise can’t play them should contact the charity, who will be happy to offer free advice.

What do you think? Do you like the idea of being able to play a game with your eyes? How would you feel if you were unable to play games any more? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and please share this article in the hope that more people are able to support a good cause.

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