SpecialEffect at 10: “We’ve increased our work tenfold”

Katharine Byrne
SpecialEffect at 10: “We’ve increased our work tenfold”

SpecialEffect celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and just raised over £300,000 during its One Special Day campaign. We talk to founder and CEO Dr Mick Donegan (pictured below) about what’s next for the gaming charity.

Congrats on your 10th anniversary. How has SpecialEffect grown over the last ten years?

We’ve increased the number of people we help through face-to-face assessments and support tenfold, and we’re now collaborating with both hardware and software developers worldwide. Our aim from the start was to use the knowledge, skills and experience our team acquired by working with people with the most complex disabilities in the UK to be able to help people on a global basis.

As time goes by, we’ve been able to collaborate with more and more developers to make games more accessible for more people. We’re very proud, for example, to have supported Double Fine in making Day of The Tentacle fully controllable by eye-gaze. 

How did your Twin Town 2018 initiative come about and what are your plans for it going forward?

The idea for the Twin Town car challenge came from Brendon Cross, one of our vice presidents, who’s from the telecoms industry. Across the 2014 and 2016 events, it’s raised over £400,000 and been fully embraced by the games industry with the likes of GAME, King, Green Man Gaming, Playground Games, Sumo Digital, Sega and many more getting involved. The good news is that we already have 80 teams registered for the 2018 event. The aim is to get 100 £500 cars taking part – people can register at www.twintown.org.uk

How has this year's One Special Day event been received?

It’s gone to a whole new level this year with over 30 more companies involved, including the likes of Sega, Supercell, Rovio, EA and Yogscast. We couldn’t be more honoured at the way in which the industry has embraced the event and it’s going to make a huge difference, especially to the increasing numbers of gamers who need our help. It’s an event that takes on a life of its own every year, and our team starts planning pretty much after the previous one has finished. It feeds into the planning cycle that includes all events that we run, and compliments our GameBlast gaming marathon weekend in February really well.

What have been the most important new gaming technologies (controllers, eye-tracking, and so on) for you as a charity?

One of the most important recent new technologies to our day-to-day work is actually one of the controller modifications we’ve created ourselves. Many of the people we see have a condition that means that they don’t have the strength to use a standard games controller, so the resistance of the joysticks is too much for them to move. 

A couple of years ago, we started swapping out the springs in the joystick pots for lighter ones. The impact of this simple idea has meant so many of the people we see have been able to keep using a standard controller for longer, or use one of these joysticks as part of a more complex setup, when no other joystick has been easy enough for them to move. The idea is simple, but the modification takes a lot of skill and time to complete. We often need several controllers to complete just one, as damage to the boards when removing parts is common.

Our ideal aim would be for a controller manufacturer to offer the option of swapping out the springs at the point of manufacture, meaning we could use our resources for other projects and people globally could access this hardware more easily. 

"We have a multi-professional team that includes five specialist occupational therapists backed up by a specialist technical and software design team."

What do you make of Microsoft's Copilot feature for the Xbox One? Is this something you'd like to see more of?

It’s been a really strong step towards greater accessibility on its console. It allows us to add other controller options, either by splitting the controls between different parts of the body – for example, holding one controller in the hands and another mounted to move a joystick with the chin – or share the controls with a friend using one controller each.

Previously, we needed to use hardware to recreate this feature on the Xbox. With Microsoft building this into the operating system, it means more people can set themselves up to use multiple controls without the need for extra hardware. Our ideal aim would be for a controller manufacturer to offer the option of swapping out the springs at the point of manufacture, meaning we could use our resources for other projects and people globally could access this hardware more easily.

There are now more gaming-based charities than ever before – what does that mean for SpecialEffect?

The term ‘gaming-based charities’ covers a pretty wide spectrum. Our own particular focus is on people with the most complex physical disabilities, which is why we have a multi-professional team that includes five specialist occupational therapists backed up by a specialist technical and software design team.

This is to ensure that even someone who, for example, might be very fragile with a life-limiting condition has the most effective, efficient and safest way of controlling their technology. It’s a life-long service, continuously re-visiting the person to modify and customise their system to the finest detail as their condition changes. That’s not only to ensure that they have the safest and most effective way of playing video games for the rest of their lives; it’s also to continue to give them the best chance of winning.

From the evidence of the ever-increasing number of requests we receive for help by our particular demographic year-on-year and the ever-increasing number of generous people who want to help them by supporting us, the arrival of charities who describe themselves as gaming-based doesn’t seem to have made any noticeable difference to our work. 

"Our ideal aim would be for a controller manufacturer to offer the option of swapping out the springs at the point of manufacture, meaning we could use our resources for other projects and people globally could access this hardware more easily."

How does being on-site at events like EGX help both the wider community and you as a charity?

It’s a chance to update those people who support us on all of the additional severely disabled people we’ve been able to help as a result of their generosity, as well as let them know about future fundraising opportunities. It’s also a chance to tell new people about our work.

One of the great things about expos being held at locations like the NEC is that the wheelchair access is so good. It’s a great chance for more and more people who could benefit from SpecialEffect’s help being attracted to our stand who otherwise might never hear about us. In a nutshell, it’s a great way for people who need our help to find us, and a great way for us to find new people who might want to help us to help them.

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