The lights are on
Lee Knight was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when he was
four years old. This genetic disease causes muscle weakness over time
due to the deterioration of nerve cells that connect the brain to the
body’s muscles. Mental abilities are unaffected by the disease, but over
time muscle movement is progressively limited, which is what happened
[This feature originally appeared in Game Informer issue #254]
Knight was athletic and enjoyed playing soccer, but around age 11, he
was no longer able to play. By 12, he was in a wheelchair full time,
and his interests moved to a new outlet: video games. Over time,
Knight’s movement capabilities became more and more limited. Today,
Knight has lost all use of his left arm, and can only use one finger and
his thumb on his right hand. Thanks to the charity organization Special
Effect, however, Knight is still able to play games, even completing
complicated action games like Grand Theft Auto V.
Founded in 2007 and based in the United Kingdom, Special Effect is a
charity organization bringing video games to the disabled. Approaching
each disabled player on a case-by-case basis, Special Effect builds and
customizes video game controllers for specific disabilities and loans
them out to gamers in need, free of charge. “Everyone’s physical
abilities are slightly different – some people we see might have finger
movement but no strength to grip a controller,” says Mark Saville, who
is in charge of Special Effect’s general communications. “Others might
have limited abilities to move their thumbs. And others may have no
controllable movement of their bodies at all, apart from their eyes.”
Special Effect doesn't build each controller from scratch. Rather,
the organization has a collection of modified controllers, many of which
are built by a company called Mondelez International. These controllers
are unassuming, looking like a box with a series of input sockets. Each
of those sockets corresponds to a button on a video game controller,
and different types of inputs can be placed into those sockets to
has muscular dystrophy. Special Effect has been working with him for
years, updating his controller as his capabilities have changed.
The small staff of 11 has 2 specialist occupational therapists on
hand to help identify the best usable body movements from the player and
puts together controllers based on those specifications. Special Effect
was able to build a special mount for Knight with a modified Xbox 360
controller, placing the buttons under his fingers on his lap. Using his
chin, he is able to manipulate the control sticks, which have also been
modified with special microlight switches. Knight also has a special
mouse controller supplied by Special Effect that incorporates a headset
to activate buttons using voice commands.
Setting up someone with a compatible controller often takes more than
reconfiguring the standard equipment. “Sometimes we get the drill and
soldering iron out to modify controllers, say, to make a -trigger
available as a button on the front of the unit, or to install a socket
so that an external switch can be plugged in,” Saville says. “If there’s
a need to physically modify a controller – for example, to include a
secure fixing to mount it to a wheelchair – we’ll take it to the
workshop and get out the screwdriver.” Sometimes Special Effect
continually modifies a controller as necessary over the course of many
years as a player’s disabilities continually limit their ability to use a
For Knight, receiving help from Special Effect has changed his life.
“All my life I have played games, and they have bridged the gap between
what I can and can’t do,” he says. Before working with Special Effect,
Knight says he thought he had lost the ability to play video games, and
it was devastating. “I just can’t put into words how much I love games,
and Special Effect has allowed me to experience some games that I never
thought I would,” he says.
Special Effect has already helped thousands as it continues to expand
its work and help disabled gamers. In one scenario, Special Effect
helped a gamer suffering from the later stages of muscular dystrophy.
“We used a fairly elaborate system of switches and joysticks harnessing
what tiny movements of his body he had left, and by the time we left
that evening, he was playing Call of Duty with his mother,” Saville
There is no selection process or specific medical needs precluding
the assistance of Special Effect. The charity organization helps
everyone, including accident victims, service personnel with combat
injuries, people with congenital and progressive conditions, and stroke
patients. If you’re unable to play a video game because of a disability,
Special Effect wants to help. “We believe that everyone should have
access to video games,” Saville says.
For more information on Special Effect, you can check out the offical website, and follow them on twitter and facebook.
Email the author Kyle Hilliard, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.