Quality of Life Spotlight: Oak Hill

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on April 04, 2022 # Quality of Life Grant Spotlight

With today’s multitude of streaming options, video games have become a fun and engaging way to connect with others and build friendships. Players often develop problem-solving and social skills as they work together to form alliances and join cooperatively as teams.

Yet, while online gaming can be a great way for people with disabilities to connect with others, complications of the game settings and physical interactions with the game controllers can limit their ability to participate.

In 2021, the New England Assistive Technology (NEAT) Center, a program of Oak Hill, the largest disability services provider in Connecticut, received a $15,506 Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Quality of Life grant to help make playing video games more accessible to the almost 58,000 they serve each year. The center offers technology evaluations and support to individuals, agencies, universities, and school districts throughout Connecticut.

“The NEAT Center focuses on empowering individuals of all ages and abilities to utilize assistive technology to increase their independence,” says Nicole Feeney, senior director of Oak Hill centers. “We work to eliminate barriers and give people access to whatever they need to be more successful, which includes access to leisure activities like gaming.”

The grant support enabled the NEAT Center to build a fully equipped, portable and accessible video game access station and provide free adaptive gaming assessments for gamers living with paralysis as part of the center’s newly launched Gaming Accessibility Services. The new department has created a lending library of devices and provides expertise, experience, information, and resources that enable the user to evaluate their options and make informed decision.

“Before receiving this grant, we had served only a small number of individuals because we lacked the adaptive devices and gaming accessories needed to test the best equipment to meet individual needs and goals,” says Feeney. “The grant allowed us to remove the financial barrier to gaming. We estimate that about 30% of the individuals who inquire about our services are not able to afford the cost of the assessment and their needed technology.”

To date, Gaming Accessibility Services has met with six people living with paralysis to give highly specific, customized recommendations that can include a device loan, helping identify funding to buy the device, and set-up support. Four of these assessments were conducted virtually with gamers logging in from Maine, Ohio, Maryland, and Connecticut.

“For example, two of NEAT’s assistive technology specialists met with a gamer living with paralysis who was not able to use enough fingers to operate a traditional gaming controller,” says Feeney. “They mailed the gamer a few gaming devices and connected him with a gaming laptop equipped with voice control software. Through a virtual follow-up, our team helped get him set up and playing.”

All the individuals who have participated in a gaming consultation reported it was a positive experience. One of the gamers who received support commented, “Having an adaptive controller turns me from a spectator to an active participant. I'll no longer have to sit and watch everyone else play.”

Another said, “The play consultation allowed me to test out different set-ups to discover the one that works for me. It also helped me to understand how the set-up and the game's settings can play off each other to give me the best gaming experience.”

The grant also funded the creation of a portable video game access station, a 10-foot by 10-foot space where up to four gamers can play video games together. The gaming station can be set up in different community locations to increase awareness of accessibility in gaming, educate people on how to game accessibly and promote social inclusivity. When not in use, the station’s equipment is available to borrow through the NEAT Center’s lending library.

One of the 65 participants who have used the station to date noted, “I learned that there are so many accessibility options for individuals with all abilities. From different trackpads to size buttons, I think the gaming station is a fantastic way to display all the AT [adaptive technology] that is out there for individuals.”

In September, the grant funding was used to host ten gamers in the NEAT Center’s first-ever accessible and inclusive Mario Kart Tournament in Hartford. Thirty-three people attended the event, and over 10,000 people worldwide engaged with Mario Kart tournament tweets.

One caregiver commented, “The kids all thoroughly enjoyed it and felt they engaged in a real tournament without feeling the stress that can often come when trying to get technology to work at its fullest capacity to assist users’ needs.”

Another participant’s caregiver noted, “The manner in how it was set up and hosted allowed for those gamers with social issues to have something to be on the same page on and talk about. [It was] a great way to get them socializing, supporting each other and involved with others in their peer group.”

The NEAT team has also hosted several in-person, virtual and hybrid “play and learn” gaming events and mini live webinars that served 47 individuals living with paralysis. During these events, NEAT specialists would spend time with each gamer and their caregiver to help them get set up and answer all their questions.

“The NEAT team works hard to create a fun and inclusive environment where gamers play without caregiver assistance, and caregivers learn about all the different accessibility options,” says Feeney. “All our events raise awareness of the barriers and demonstrate the possibilities that exist. Many of the people we help didn’t think gaming was an option.”

The NEAT Center’s specialists have shared their experience with two game developers who will use the feedback to design and edit games to increase accessibility. The staff also continues to look for opportunities, such as SCI support groups, conferences, special education classrooms, group homes, summer camps and special events throughout the state, to use the gaming station and speak about gaming accessibility.

“We are incredibly grateful for the Reeve Foundation support and recognition that social connection and recreation are important components to improving quality of life,” says Feeney. “The Reeve Foundation gave us the opportunity to expand our services to help individuals living with paralysis thrive.”

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.