Tom Donegan – SpecialEffect – Every solution we find is a milestone

23 August 2017


Tom Donegan is the Fundraising Events Coordinator at SpecialEffect

Tom Donegan – SpecialEffect

SpecialEffect is a UK based charity doing amazing things to help those who otherwise couldn’t enjoy playing video games. It gives some respite to those who badly need it, and they’ve an ever expanding portfolio of ingenious modifications to consoles to allow for various disabilities.

We’re pleased to be helping spread the word of the work they do and it’s with this purpose that we’ve made them the Charity Partner of our ESI Forum series, the monthly esports industry networking and knowledge sharing events that we host at the Bunkr. They’ll be there again on August 31st detailing what it is they do and showcasing one of their modified tools which allows players to play some Rocket League with chin controls.

Here we spoke to Tom about what they do at SpecialEffect, the impact they have and their plans to do more of the same!

Esports Insider: Tom, tell us how and why you personally came to be involved with SpecialEffect

Tom Donegan: The charity was founded by my dad, Dr. Mick Donegan, back in 2007. In the early days, it was a 100% voluntary organisation and I would help out with some of the admin and fundraising duties, while I was finishing up at Uni.

I then went off and did a number of other jobs in the non-profit sector, before returning to SpecialEffect as a full time employee about three years ago, when I joined the fundraising team as the events coordinator.

ESI: What stands out in your memory of the impact SpecialEffect has had?

Tom: It’s been amazing to see how things have developed over the past ten years!

The service we provide is lifelong, so one of the nice things is that you get to know people and follow their progression in using the technology. A great example of this would be Rob Camm, who we helped initially after he was involved in a car accident and was paralysed from the neck down. Our team visited him while he was still in intensive care and had literally been staring at the ceiling for 6 weeks.

“Within a year Rob was able to go to University in Bristol and received a first class degree this summer!”

They set him up with an eye-tracking system, which meant he could take control of a computer without using his hands. Suddenly he was able to go online again, communicate with his friends on social media and start playing simple games like chess and draughts with his family. So there was an immediate impact in terms of his quality of life right there and then. But also in the long-term too – once he had moved out of intensive care and into rehab, we helped Rob to progress to a combination of speech recognition and a ‘headmouse’ to give him quick and comprehensive computer access. Within a year Rob was able to go to University in Bristol and received a first class degree this summer!

It’s great to follow individual stories like that. But then there’s also the big-picture stuff as well. Everything we learn through working one-to-one with people, then gets applied to our R&D work with tech and software companies, so you start to see people putting features like eye-gaze accessible menus into their games for example. Certain high-end gaming laptop manufacturers have event started to integrate eye-tracking cameras into ‘mainstream’ systems! Through influencing changes at this level, we can start to impact a far greater number of people’s enjoyment of technology, not just here in the UK but worldwide.

ESI: Can you tell us about the original conception of the charity and its ethos? What is SpecialEffect’s mission, and what have been the milestones to date?

Tom: The original idea for the charity came from Mick’s experience as Deputy Director of a national centre that uses technology to help severely disabled young people with their education and communication.

“In all honesty, every single person we find a solution for is a milestone”

While the young people and their parents valued this service highly, they frequently asked where they could go to find help to play video games, as standard controllers were impossible for them to use. Because of their disabilities, many of them had never had the chance to play video games, whether independently, with friends or with their families. All they’d ever been able to do was to simply watch other people having all the fun! Mick decided that something HAD to be done to fill this huge hole in their quality of life and, as a result, founded SpecialEffect.

As for milestones, in all honesty, every single person we find a solution for is a milestone. On a macro level, though, one of the most satisfying milestones along the way was reaching the point where we had grown enough not only to help individuals but to also help developers to incorporate accessible features into their games and hardware. As a result, this was the point when we became a global charity, helping literally thousands more disabled people all over the world to join in with the rest of us too.

Another massive milestone, of course, is to have reached the point we’re at today, our tenth anniversary year, when with the help of amazing supporters like yourselves, we’re not only surviving but still growing and transforming more and more and more severely disabled people’s lives every single day.

SpecialEffect are our charity partner for the #ESIForum Series

ESI: You’ve had a great relationship with Football Manager for some time. How has entering the world of esports been?

Tom: We’re still quite new to the world of esports, but the interaction we’ve had so far has been great in terms of raising awareness and developing relationships within the industry.

“We’re still quite new to the world of esports, but the interaction we’ve had so far has been great”

Some of the conversations I had at the first ESI Forum were brilliant and we’re really keen to learn more. There’s obviously so much cross-over between our work with disabled gamers and the wider gaming community, and people seem to have a real connection to what we do. It would be great to keep building on this going forward.

ESI: How can those that want to help do so? Also, you’re UK based but are there plans to expand further afield in the future?

Tom: The work we do is pretty resource heavy – both the technology and staff time involved in one-to-one assessments and the R&D work don’t come cheap – and we don’t charge a penny for any of our services or loaned equipment. Raising enough each year to fund this work is a constant challenge, so we’re always looking for supporters who can help us to meet the ever increasing demand.

We do a lot of events throughout the year – some more conventional things like runs and football matches, but also some very games-community orientated stuff, like GameBlast and OneSpecialDay. In addition to raising money, we are always keen to partner up with people who can help us spread the word and engage with new audiences – joining forces with the ESI Forum is a great example of this!

We’ve also recently been approached by a number of esports teams who were keen to carry our logo on their jerseys as a charity ‘sponsor’ and it’s been pretty awesome to see the brand out there at tournaments.

Long story short, we’re open to new ideas and suggestions, so drop me a line or come and have a chat on August 31!

The next Esports insider Forum Series event is taking place on August 31st at Fnatic’s Bunkr in Shoreditch, London. Come by, meet SpecialEffect, chinwag with those in and around the world of esports, plus play some Tekken and eat some pizza. Tickets limited.