Scarce, Costly Adaptive Gaming Peripherals Force Disabled Players to Find Creative Solutions

With few first-party alternatives, disabled players look elsewhere.

Despite becoming disabled in 2010, Markus Kämäräinen still manages to enjoy playing video games, albeit with some extra assistance. Roughly nine years ago, Kämäräinen began adding adaptive gaming equipment to his setups, as traditional input methods failed to accommodate his specific needs. For Kämäräinen and many other disabled individuals, adaptive equipment, while not perfect, can help to create accessible gaming experiences when features and inclusive design cannot accommodate everyone.

Adaptive equipment has no standard model, as each piece caters to the individual. A popsicle stick taped to the back of an Xbox 360 controller to extend the triggers is just as valid and necessary as a $400 device that players can operate with their mouth. Even a single device may not be enough — disabled individuals require an amalgamation of wires, plastic, and metal to simply play a game. Kämäräinen’s gear is proof that adaptive equipment can be beneficial but also cumbersome. In some cases, it’s quite expensive — especially since Finland, where he lives, lacks notable charities to reduce costs.

“It was 2013 or 2014 when I ordered a controller called QuadControl by Ken Yankelevitz,” Kämäräinen tells Fanbyte. “It was a rather crude and clunky controller, but it meant [the] world to me as it allowed me to play games again since I became disabled in 2010. Since then, I’ve updated my setup quite a bit. Currently, it includes QuadStick FPS and Ultrastik 360 for controlling the game, and Titan Two and Hori Mini Controller to authenticate my special setup for PlayStation 5.”

These tools come at a cost. While they are sometimes necessary for disabled people when playing games, the overall price can be a deterrent. For example, Xbox Adaptive Controller and its companion attachment set, the Logitech Adaptive Gaming Kit, can cost upwards of $250. Kämäräinen says that the combined expenses of his controller setup, which includes U.S. taxes since many items are imported from the States, amount to almost $800 — and that’s without adding the price tags of consoles, TVs, and other basic equipment. Fortunately for him, the Finnish welfare system made these purchases possible even with the egregious cost.

Thankfully, the cost of using adaptive equipment does not always have to fall on the individual alone. Charitable organizations and even creative ingenuity offer affordable alternatives to simply outright purchasing a device.

Vivek Gohil, an accessibility consultant and freelance writer, received his equipment from SpecialEffect, a UK-based charity that provides adaptive equipment to physically disabled individuals. Because of their collaboration, Gohil was able to receive his setup for free, only needing to purchase a Titan Two adapter for roughly €200. This is particularly beneficial because Gohil’s disability, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, means that frequent adjustments are done free of charge.

“My setup went through three iterations over a period of a few months,” Gohil says. “I would use it and reach a difficult barrier depending on the game and require assistance. The core process took a year, however, [since] my setup is an ongoing process because of my constant muscle weakness.”

SpecialEffect is not the only organization to provide such services. What started as a program to assist disabled veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center eventually transitioned into a business that designs and provides adaptive equipment to a variety of disabled individuals. Ken Jones, the founder and president of the nonprofit Warfighter Engaged, originally used his skills as a mechanical engineer to create adaptive controllers for disabled veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center. However, the program grew to become immensely popular with the patients before long. His workload increased to the point that he not only did it regularly, but also started Warfighter Engaged in order to help fund the work needed to sustain the program.

Jones understands the need to provide affordable controllers and gear. Like SpecialEffect, Warfighter Engaged covers all costs for veterans and offers reasonably priced products for the public. Whether it’s a specific setup that could take weeks to design or a single device that connects to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, he tries to keep his prices manageable since many disabled people are on fixed incomes.

“We do our best to keep costs down and often offer reduced pricing or free items if we know there is a hardship,” he says. “We simply cannot offer free parts to all civilians, but we try to help when we can. I think the maker community has an obligation to help the disabled if they can. We are physically capable, so we should help people if we have the skills to do so. Charging for the work is fair but exploiting people isn’t.”

The maker community that Jones speaks of is composed of charities, smaller organizations, and even tech savvy individuals. With their ingenuity, many use their skills to get disabled players into gaming. It includes notable community members like Jacob Gertz and Caleb Kraft, who have created devices for themselves and others. Gertz, also known as Twitch streamer Gerta75, took approximately one month to design and build the controller that best accommodates his needs as a disabled player.

“My controller is roughly $100 in material,” Gertz says. “That excludes the tools and time it took to do the modifications. I frequently have to change my mouth trigger, so I probably put an additional $25 a year into maintenance.”

Kraft, senior editor at Make Magazine, first began designing adaptive equipment approximately 10 years ago to generate online views, eventually familiarizing himself with the “difficulties and necessity of accessible hardware.” Since starting, Kraft has used his talents to create devices for free, even if certain controllers take weeks to develop.

“Many mods don’t have to be expensive if someone will volunteer their time,” he says. “3D prints are dirt cheap. Wire and momentary switches are dirt cheap. Creators can look for cheap solutions that work and stop worrying about how pretty they are. Another important thing is to set aside your ego when designing. If there’s something out there that works, do that; don’t reinvent the wheel!”

Kraft is a major proponent of designing and creating controllers through 3D printing. Not only can files be uploaded for anyone to access, but the overall cost and time of using 3D printed parts is a fraction compared to building entirely new pieces of hardware. But though many of his controllers are fashioned with 3D printed components, he is aware that they cannot solve everything.

“It obviously doesn’t help with software issues, but it can be magical for many hardware issues,” he says. “Take the example of a single hand controller, the old way required hours of soldering and electronics experience, then fabrication for the new shape. Now, there are 3D prints that do the job that cost about $1 in material and can be installed locally with no skill. They’re not perfect, but the access is much greater.”

Software continues to be the biggest obstacle when creating accessible controllers and devices. While first-party studios have made excellent strides in implementing accessibility features and inclusive design, certain hardware and software combinations, like the PlayStation 5’s DualSense, make it impossible for adaptive equipment besides 3D printed attachments to be used. Adapters like the Titan Two, which Kämäräinen and Gohil need, are rendered completely useless on a PlayStation 5 and are only usable for a PlayStation 4 game. And until the designers of the Titan Two devise a solution, newer PlayStation 5 titles will remain completely inaccessible.

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Adaptive equipment by nature is entirely individualistic. Some players only require inexpensive 3D parts, while others need extensive setups that can cost hundreds of dollars. Until support for these devices becomes commonplace among both creators and studios, disabled players are ultimately forced to gamble when searching for adaptive equipment that meets their specific needs. As Kämäräinen notes, denying access to adaptive equipment is a barrier all on its own.

“[T]he industry should always allow third party compatibility with their products,” he says. “Supporting hardware accessibility is just as important as software accessibility, at least for players with motor impairments.”