The Struggle to Make Games Accessible to Special-Needs Students

Contributing Writer

Though many ed-tech companies say they’re committed to making their products accessible, vendors who design games often have little understanding of what it takes to serve special-needs students.

That was one of the themes that emerged at the recent ED Games Expo, a yearly showcase of government-sponsored learning games and tech, which draws companies from around the country.

Ed-tech companies’ ability to meet the needs of special education students was a problem that Bridge Multimedia encountered when the company and its partners approached big names in the game design industry with a proposal to develop a game that would “set a new standard for accessibility in children’s gaming,” Bridge Multimedia President Matt Kaplowitz said at the expo, held last week in Washington, DC.

“We put out our proposal to five or six of the heavy hitters in game design,” Kaplowitz said during a speech at the expo. “None of them had a clue what we were talking about with accessibility. Not one.”

Bridge Multimedia focuses on producing accessible media for people with disabilities.

During the ED Games Expo, which is organized by the U.S. Department of Education, a number of advisers to education companies and vendors involved in designing games for schools, called for the education-game sector to do more to serve the demands of special-needs populations.

Those attendees said the ed-tech gaming community needs to become much more focused on serving those students and families, both as a way of helping those populations, and as an opportunity to develop cutting-edge products.

Bridge and its partners, including PBS Kids, a curriculum-based children’s entertainment provider, then crafted a guide that explained to game developers some specifics about conditions like autism and attention-deficit disorder, and how these conditions should be viewed from a gaming standpoint, Kaplowitz said.

“What came out of this was a game that in the first six months cracked two million downloads per use—which for something of this nature is a really nice number,” he said. But the real benefit, said Kaplowitz, was the development of a guide on accessibility that all game developers can access for free.

Design With ‘Quality of Life’ In Mind

An overarching goal for Kaplowitz is for the world of gaming to become much more attuned to the needs and sensitivities of students with special needs, he said.

For instance, taking into account the differences between the brain function of children with autism and the brain function of children without autism, products can incorporate concepts that communicate with users who have disabilities. Those features can include dialogue and images to support facial expressions, concrete language, positive reinforcements, and video and audio prompts, Kaplowitz said.

During the expo, AbleGamers Charity Executive Director Mark Barlet said during a speech that industry should account for kids with disabilities as part of the core group of players and not as an afterthought.

“How do we make this product accessible?” Barlet said. “That’s the wrong question. The question is: How do we make these [immersive] experiences? What is it you’re trying to teach that student? How do we make that experience successful?”

The number of students diagnosed with autism in the U.S. rose from 100,000 in 2001 to 1 million in 2013, equating to at least one autistic child in every class for school districts with 10,000 or more students, noted Kevin Custer, founding principal of education-focused venture capital firm ARC Capital Development, during the expo.

This means there is now a greater opportunity for companies to serve families in the autistic community through providing innovative products than there was 19 years ago, he said.

For the products that ARC invests in, “what we’re really looking for is quality of life,” Custer said.

In terms of catering products to students with disabilities, that does not mean “just pacifying them and putting them in a room where we don’t have to deal with them,” he said. “Let’s actually give them quality of life.”

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12 thoughts on “The Struggle to Make Games Accessible to Special-Needs Students

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