Opinion: Esports inclusivity for disabled gamers begins in school

As gamers, we might think of an “ability” as a special character skill like casting magic or performing a sneak attack. But the word takes on a different meaning for 10 percent of the world’s population or roughly 650 million people because they are disabled — especially if they are gamers.

I recently learned that July is Disability Pride Month. Looking back at my school days, I think it would have been really fun to play video games with my disabled friends.

esports inclusivity disabilities
Image credit: Microsoft

Now that schools as early as K-12 are adopting esports programs, there is no better time than now to include those with disabilities if they want to participate. Esports is giving students a new way to learn valuable skills like communication, teamwork, and appropriate online behaviour. For those of us who were terrible at sports in school, joining the big team wasn’t an option — even less so for students with disabilities — so we all missed out on those fantastic benefits and scholarship opportunities

With esports rising in popularity and awareness, I wish that all of today’s youth would be able to reap the benefits that team esports has to offer and perhaps even build a career out of it if they choose. Esports is not the cure-all for inclusivity in school sports, but I do believe it’s a conversation worth having.

Benefits of esports for disabled students

Learning new skills

Team esports allows children to interact with others with similar interests. They also learn valuable soft skills that translate into adulthood such as communication, sportsmanship, problem-solving skills, and how to come together as a team for a common goal. For disabled students, this is an opportunity to interact with other kids in a way that may not otherwise be possible. It’s also a great time for non-disabled students to see past a person’s differences and treat them with respect both inside and outside the game.

esports disabled students
Image credit: Netmarble


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities are less likely to have a college education and are more likely to be unemployed compared to those without a disability. There are now over 130 colleges in North America alone that offer esports programs and several of them offer scholarships. 

Money for college can also be won through school esports organisations like HSEL and PlayVS. These groups also help students, parents, and schools connect with colleges that host esports programs.

Tips for including disabled gamers

1: There’s helping and then there’s “helping”

I sat down with AbleGamers Charity COO Steven Spohn to get his advice on how school esports can become more inclusive. The biggest takeaway from our conversation? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In other words, don’t change your entire school esports program for the sake of virtue signalling. Do it if disabled students want to get involved.

“No one’s asking for all sports to be accessible to everybody. It’s a skillset [and] you need a certain ability,” said Spohn. “Similarly, a random able-bodied person off the street who’s never trained a day in their life isn’t going to go run a marathon and win a world record.

“People will go down this rabbit hole and it’s always [coming from] good intensions to include everybody. But sometimes it’s not something people are asking for. “

Spohn related the accomplishments of his friend and professional Street Fighter player Mike ”Brolylegs” Begum, who competes against able-bodied gamers by pressing the buttons on a controller with his face. He doesn’t ask for special consideration, but rather to be treated like anyone else.

“People can conflate equality and being special,” said Spohn. “There’s nothing wrong with people being different. We’re asking that people stop minding that we’re different.”

On that note, if one or more disabled students want to participate in esports or gaming-related events, talk to them. Don’t make assumptions about what they want or need.

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2. Decide what’s fair play

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the gaming solutions. A child without legs isn’t going to need the same accommodations as a fellow student with muscular dystrophy. You will need to decide how much assistance is fair if you include disabled gamers in your school esports program.

“You’re not going to make a competition fair between someone who can barely push the buttons on a standard controller or someone who needs a specialty controller versus someone who is an absolute monster at Fortnite,” said Spohn. “It’s not a fair fight.”

When in doubt, Spohn recommends creating a special bracket.

Image source: AbleGamers

3: Be mindful of terminology

Spohn agreed to talk to me on the condition that I promise never to use the phrase “differently-abled” again. An online search implied that this was the most “PC” term available, but well-meaning people like myself can unwillingly annoy or offend by making assumptions.  Do not use the terms “special gamers” or “handi-capable,” either, says Spohn.

If you absolutely have to write a term other than “gamer” when describing your students (say, for a special disabled bracket) ask them which term they prefer.

Inclusive gaming tools and resources

Creating an inclusive environment for disabled students will vary by each person’s unique situation, but tools and resources are available to help.

Microsoft produces an Adaptive Controller that works on Xbox One and Windows 10. The controller features large buttons and the unit can be outfitted to meet each gamers’ specific needs by using ports to mix and match other controllers such as buttons and one-handed joysticks.

Tobii Eye Tracker turns your eyeballs into a controller. The company offers a number of educational games with the software and can be used on Windows 10.

Controllers have also been engineered to operate with the chin, mouth, a single finger, and a myriad of other techniques — focusing on what a gamer can do and not what they can’t.

For schools, accommodating disabled esports competitors might be as simple as propping a monitor up on a box for someone who can’t move their neck or playing a game that offers color-blind settings or text options for the hearing impaired.

In addition to AbleGamer Charity, you can find other disabled gamers and helpful resources on the /disabledgamers subreddit.

insclusive esports competition
Image Credit: ePARA

Promoting inclusive esports competitions

Many countries already host their own Paralympics, allowing disabled athletes to compete and do their best. This idea is thankfully beginning to cross over into esports.

In 2018, Netmarble hosted the National e Festival Competitions for Students with Disabilities along with the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) and the National Institute for Special Education (NISE).

Last August, the Gunma Esports Festival in Takasaki, Japan hosted a competition for gamers with disabilities. Competitors duked it out in League of Legends for the grand prize of 1 million yen (roughly $9,300). Each player, including one with muscular dystrophy, competed using specially-designed equipment provided by non-profit organisation Onelife Inc.

It would be really nice to see more of these kinds of tournaments across the world. It shows people, especially children, that it’s okay to be different.

Image credit: Gunma Esports Festival

Highlighting disabled esports role models

Esports plays host to a vibrant tapestry of gamers from all walks of life, and that includes those who were born disabled or those who developed disabilities along the way. It’s important for children to see other people overcoming the odds to achieve their goals and have fun. Here are just a few of such role models that kids can learn from:

Soleil ‘FaZe Ewok’ Wheeler rose to fame last year as FaZe Clan’s first female recruit and streams Fortnite to hundreds of thousands of fans. The teenager was born deaf and uses sound visualization in Fortnite so she can be aware of players as they approach.

Mike ”Brolylegs” Begum, born with Arthrogryposis and Scoliosis, is a mainstay in the Street Fighter community, having competed in many of the main events for nearly a decade. He has reached Professional status playing Chun-Li, one of the more technical fighters in the Street Fighter V roster, all while using his tongue and a PS4 Duel Shock controller. He currently trains players in SFV.

Randy “N0M4D” Fitzgerald was born with Arthrogryposis, and gained widespread attention competing in the Major League Gaming circuit without the use of his hands. He has placed in numerous competitions using his lips and chin and is well-known for his custom control scheme in Call of Duty.

Dayton “Wheels” Jones is one of the world’s top Killer Instinct players despite having Spinal Muscular Atrophy type II. He now focuses on Mortal Kombat 11 and you can still find him gaming online.

Chris “Phoenix” Robinson, who is completely deaf in his left ear and has severe hearing loss in his right ear, competes in a myriad of titles, from Street Fighter to Tekken, and founded DeafGamersTV, an organization for deaf gamers that advocates for subtitles and appropriate sound options in games.

BrolyLegs SFV
Image Credit: BrolyLegs

In conclusion, we are living in an unprecedented time of digital togetherness. As we continue to enjoy esports and encourage children to get involved, let’s not forget our disabled friends and let them know they are welcome, beginning as early as possible in their academic lives.