Mark Saville, Special Effect – 23rd April 2013

Mark Saville visited the Club to speak to members about SpecialEffect, a charity dedicated to using technology to enhance the quality of life of people with disabilities.

Dr Mick Donegan, Founder and Head of the charity, had 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 video games 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 SpecialEffect started, because no one in the UK was offering that kind of service.

SpecialEffect was founded in 2007 and within months it became obvious that there was a huge demand for help and advice. Over the next six years the charity had no option but to grow and now they have four full-time and ten part-time staff members, along with a welcome army of volunteers and an active group of SpecialEffect Ambassadors, one of whom ran in the London Marathon 2013 and a tweet about this reached over 30,000 people.

Funding isn’t easy and they do not charge for the work they do. Anyone, anywhere in the UK can ask us for help and, if appropriate, SpecialEffect will buy and lend the necessary videogames and access technology for them to try out for themselves. The charity is based in Charlbury, Oxfordshire where they were able to open the UK’s first accessible games room for people with disabilities.

With the number of people enjoying computer games steadily increasing, there’s going to be no fall-off in the number of people needing support. But at the heart of the charity is a determination to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to help each individual. In 2012 they helped 72 people, one of whom they visited 12 times!

The club members were given a demonstration of a rally video game with Mark using only his eye movements to drive. The plug in ‘EyeGaze’ unit gives control of the game using eye movement and the technology has been around for about 20 years but at beginning the head had to remain very still. Each unit costs around £4k but Mark believes that with an increase in demand, the price will fall. The EyeGaze is particulary useful for those people with cerebral palsy and for children with disabilities, enabling them to join games with friends on a ‘level playing field’.

SpecialEffect staff consists of fundraisers, occupational therapists and technicians. They visit people who contact them – some may have had accidents, some may have a degenerative disease or have been born with their condition. Mark played a couple of case studies to Club members – one showed a young girl who had lost all four limbs to meningitis playing with a specially adapted Wii and another showed a young boy playing a FIFA football game with his dad. FIFA games have a 2 button mode built in already which is helpful when it comes to adapting them for users.

Why games and leisure for people with disabilities?
A way to play

When some games are simply too fast for people with disabilities to play then SpecialEffect technicians can recommend another game. SpecialEffect liaises with games makers to ask them to put in certain commands so that they can fit in the console and are currently working with the developers of Angry Birds. But it is not only for young children – they also adapt and/or develop games such as Sudoku for older patients.
SpecialEffect works closely with Helen & Douglas House, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Stoke Mandeville, The Children’s Trust, ROSY.

Mark mentioned that the games industry does not currently seem to be interested in supporting the charity which has running costs each year of £450,000 and no regular source of funding. The current waiting list is 3-4 months but with more funding they could reduce this. Resources also have to be put aside for repair and maintenance of equipment and as the charity help more and more people, consequently this means they need a larger amount for repairs and maintenance.

They see their challenges as:
High cost of equipment
High cost of customisation and support
Help all ages and disabilities
Whole of UK and Ireland
And they don’t charge for anything

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