Opinion – For The Disabled, Actions Speak Louder Than Avatars
Recently, Microsoft received a lot of attention on social media for its efforts to make gaming more inclusive by allowing players to customize their online profiles with disability-centric props and player icons. The goal seems to be allowing disabled people to have the same pride and freedom of expression as other chronically under-represented minorities. It is important to allow players freedom of expression, but focusing on acceptance for the disabled community online rather than accessibility of gameplay runs the risk of derailing the entire push for greater inclusion in games.
When developers view disabilities as something that needs to be equally represented like sexual identity, race, and gender, they are in essence trying to build inclusion on the foundation of acceptance, not accessibility. Accepting people for who they are is an important step toward inclusion for all minorities, but, for the disabled, acceptance without access is meaningless, and inclusion without accessibility is void. For example: what's the benefit of having inclusive avatars and Gamerpics on major platforms when exclusive games like Halo 5: Guardians don’t take basic steps to be accessible for the visually impaired by including a heads-up display that is easily distinguishable from the background in all areas of the game?
Allowing players the opportunity to make avatars that represent their physical condition is a noble goal, but it does little to include disabled people within the video game world. In fact, a gamer profile that announces a disability may be more of a hindrance to players than a profile that puts them on the same level as their peers. I am disabled. I use a wheelchair for mobility, and have a pronounced speech impediment. These things are with me every minute of every day and are the factors through which people filter their interaction with me.
The only arena in which I am not viewed as disabled is gaming. When playing online, people don’t see my wheelchair, hear my voice, or make the assumptions that they would if they met me in real life. I wouldn't want to advertise my physical difficulty as part of my online identity. The fact is that many disabled gamers would choose to get rid of their disability and its accoutrements if they had that option, and would never choose to reveal a disability in an arena where it was hidden and where it was not affecting the way they interacted with people.
The focus on acceptance before accessibility treats disabilities as though they are social factors and not medical conditions. If we subscribe to this view, then there is no need for accessibility in games or other media. Instead, disabled gamers should find the idea of accessibility offensive because eliminating their physical challenges would be the same as changing another character trait to conform to a societal norm. But this view is false.
Much of the disabled community finds pride not in the presence of a disability but in overcoming the barriers that disabilities create. The best way for developers to help disabled gamers overcome their disabilities is by making games more accessible, not by making disabilities more acceptable. While it is admirable that developers are trying to make the social features within games more customizable to represent different types of gamers, the bottom line is this: the type of customization that we need is more accessibility options in games. Gaming is the only environment where people can come together and participate without their peers making assumptions based on their physical appearance. If games are made properly accessible, the disabled are included not because of some sort of social obligation, but because they actually have the same ability to play the games as everyone else.