AbleGamers Foundation: A History of Accomplishing The Impossible


Posted June 25, 2012 - By Cassandra Khaw

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On the Internet, it's easy to forget that not everyone is of the same gender, ethnicity, opinion, or state of physical health. More often than not, we take it for granted that things like the ability to navigate a controller or to distinguish between shapes on the screen are universal. They aren't. For some, the simple task of holding a mouse can be a heartbreaking impossibility.

President and co-founder Mark Barlet started the AbleGamers Foundation after facing one of these impossibilities. It all started with his best friend Stephanie Walker, her husband, and the love of gaming that they all shared. In 2004, things changed for them with the onset of Stephanie's multiple sclerosis.

"One Friday evening, like almost every Friday evening before, we logged onto Everquest II to have a night of grinding. About ten minutes passed. Stephanie and her husband had yet to log onto the Vent server. I picked up the phone and gave her a call." Barlet recounted, grimly. "Her husband answered and I could hear Stephanie crying in the background. Like any other friend, I started to panic and I asked what was going on. That evening, multiple sclerosis had made using her right hand impossible."

“After that night, we started looking for some other ways for her to game but we couldn't really finding anything useful for her needs. So, we thought that if we were looking for information, others must be as well."

Since its conception, the AbleGamers Foundation has gone on to become the largest community for disabled gamers on the Internet. Home to the biggest database of games reviewed specifically for accessibility, this volunteer-powered organization has won awards from places like the city of New York and Mayor Bloomberg's officers.

Adroit Switchblade

In June 2011, the Able Gamers Foundation collaborated with Evil Controllers to create the Adroit Switchblade, an ingenious contraption that allows its users to attach 3.55mm switches of their choosing to the housing and have it operate in the manner of a standard Xbox controller. The device, which showed particular success with those suffering from muscular dystrophy, was made to provide those with strength and dexterity problems an alternative to physically handling the controller itself.

Curiously, the AbleGamers Foundation receives no profit from the sales. Their partners-in-crime Evil Controllers makes a little more. For every $399 Adroit Switchblade sales, Evil Controller only earns $10.

“We like to say that we are the only non-profit in existence that wants to be put out of business,” AbleGamers Editor-in-Chief, Steve Spohn quipped.

The ultimate goal of the AbleGamers Foundation is an ambitious one. "We want to make every game as accessible as possible to as wide a variety of disabled gamers as possible." Spohn said.

It's definitely not an easy endeavor, a reality that Spohn is more than cognizant of. "There will never be a time when every game is accessible to every single disability. Disabilities are just too varied. A number of different possibilities exist even with the same disability. For example, someone with muscular dystrophy and the sub-type spinal muscular atrophy can have completely different abilities compared to someone with the exact same condition even if they are of the same age, race and gender."

These roadblocks, however, have not proven to be a hindrance to their campaign. Asides from raising awareness about the existence of disabled gamers ("Some of them are so good that you would never know that they are stereotypically disabled!" Spohn enthused.), the nonprofit is constantly reaching out to developers to educate them about the necessity for more accessibility options and which ones should be prioritized. "We consult with individuals on a case-by-base basis and try to help them as well." Spohn added.

In spite of the altruistic nature of their cause, things have not always been easy for AbleGamers.

“Accessibility has always been a touchy subject in the industry with so many people believing that accessibility actually harms games by making them too easy for those that don't need the options, “ Spohn observed. “It was initially exceedingly difficult to get anyone to talk about accessibility or even accept ideas on how to make games more inclusive.


Today, things are starting to turn around. As AbleGamers and others who have been pushing game accessibility into the mainstream grow more successful at getting the message out there, developers have become much more willing to hear how they should be including this audience.“

“Especially when we tell them about the 33 million people that they could be selling games to, but aren't,” he added cheekily.

According to Spohn, developers have not been the only ones to demonstrate a resistance towards their cause. While minorities within the gaming communities have always been openly supportive of the AbleGamers Foundation, others have been less welcoming.

“The Internet is not always a friendly place,” Spohn commented. “Sometimes, we encounter people who just don't want to welcome people who are different.” He noted that while this was especially true for FPS communities, certain Call of Duty and Gears of War groups have proven helpful.

There is definitely a lot that still has to be done. "Some of the other difficulties we face include overcoming the stigmatism of being disabled, reaching out to an industry that doesn't necessarily want to think about additional items in the research and development cycle, creating hardware to overcome barriers that don't currently have solutions, and raising donations in a rough economy."

Is it worth it? Though a lot can be said about the work that AbleGamers have done, the quiet, poignant stories of how their mission has changed lives answers this question best. At an Accessibility Arcade in Shepherd University, the AbleGamers crew were told that a young child who had never 'come out of her shell' as much as she had at the event. In Atlantic City, a mother wept for joy as her son whose arms could not be initially perceived by the Kinect, played Fruit Ninja for the first time. On the AbleGamers forums, people exchange ideas on how to overcome every conceivable disability, on which games are the best to play, on how to make their way through a landscape that was not built for them.

Sometimes it’s not about the great feats that will change the world, but it’s about winning the personal battles that matter the most.

AbleGamers Foundation: A History of Accomplishing The Impossible


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