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Sunday, May 19, 2024

How an Adaptive Game Controller Helps My Family Bond

“Get that ghost, Henry. Get him. Now!” I heard my 6-year-old son yell as I arrived back home. It isn’t uncommon to hear him yell. But it is uncommon to hear him yell directions at his older brother.

I caught a whiff of toasted mini pizzas as I headed downstairs in search of my family and found an all-out gaming party. My three children, ages 10, 8, and 6 years old, were sprawled across the furniture and floor with my husband. Snacks and drinks lay scattered around as they played the 2006 Ghostbusters video game for Xbox.

“Check it out! Henry is using the adaptive Xbox controller,” my husband shouted over the game’s music. I looked over and saw Henry propped up in a bean bag chair. Each time his arm punched down on a big red button, a proton pack strapped to a ghostbuster’s back blasted energy beams on the screen.

A smile spread across my face as I watched my family play together. This should be a normal occurrence, but it’s not. Even though my children are so close in age, it’s difficult finding activities they can share.


Henry is my middle child. He was born early, extremely small, and in need of medical care. The day after he was born, I learned that I’d caught a virus (Cytomegalovirus) when I was pregnant, and it impacted the development of his brain. The prognosis was that he would, most likely, never be able to walk independently or talk. It was a diagnosis that forever changed how I view accessibility and inclusion.

For the first couple years of Henry’s life, he had very little control over his muscles. Before he was 1 year old, he was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Henry has participated in hundreds of hours of physical therapy and, over the years, has slowly become stronger. He can now hold his body up, move his arms and legs and stand for brief periods of time with support. But even with his progress, Henry becomes tired moving his body.

Despite his physical limitations, Henry is a smart and sassy kid who loves to play and be right in the middle of the fun. My husband and I do our best to adapt everything so Henry can participate, but it’s not easy. Henry attends a different school than his siblings, and most extracurricular activities outside of school are not set up to accommodate his limitations. Family outings, like amusement parks, present many challenges related to mobility as well.

Most of Henry’s adaptive equipment, like his wheelchair and his eye-gaze communication device, is expensive. We have to order it through an equipment clinic at a hospital or at Henry’s school. It can take four months or more before any equipment is approved by insurance and delivered for use (if insurance covers it). We need a specialist’s help to configure the equipment each time we receive an item, as well as when he grows and develops.

It’s not often that we find adaptive equipment that can be purchased off the shelf and used right away, especially with an activity the whole family enjoys. That’s where the adaptive Xbox controller comes in. It pairs right to our Xbox like a typical controller. The biggest difference is that it has large buttons on its surface, which are great for someone with limited mobility.

Henry can use the large black buttons on the controller, or we can hook up a peripheral button that is light to the touch. Each button can be configured to match any of the buttons on a typical controller. We can also use a variety of external switches at the same time.

For example, when we play Ghostbusters, the right trigger (RT) button on a typical controller fires the proton pack. We plug Henry’s external button into the port labeled “RT” on the back of the adaptive controller. Then, when he hits the external button, it performs the same function as if you were pressing the right trigger. We can also make both buttons on the adaptive controller perform the same function, so that if he overshoots his aim and misses one button but hits the other, he still gets the desired result.

There are numerous input ports on the adaptive controller, so Henry can control the proton pack with his hand, press a button to move forward with his foot, and use a switch next to his head to jump. We play the games in “copilot” mode, meaning one person navigates which direction the character moves, and Henry shoots or jumps or swings a sword.

“There he is, Henry. Keep firing until we trap him!” my daughter shouted. All three of my children and my husband played at the same time. As my husband guided his ghostbuster, Henry was in charge of shooting the proton pack. Henry squealed with delight and slammed his arm down on the button over and over again until their mission was accomplished.

Later that afternoon we switched over to Garfield Kart, a racing game. This time, I got to join in on the action. Racing games are my specialty. I directed the car while Henry pushed the gas, first with the button by his arm. Later, when he got tired, I moved the button under his foot.

“Keep pressing the button, Henry.” I instructed as my car drove over a shiny yellow square and powered up. Henry laughed as we flew past my daughter’s car and threw a blueberry pie on the road for her to trip over.

“Hey, how did you do that?!” my daughter yelled.

“Go Henry, go!” his brother cheered, upsetting his sister because he was siding with Henry instead of her. All very typical sibling behavior that warmed my heart. The ability to enjoy the same level of escapism into the fantasy world is empowering to Henry with his limited mobility. But it’s also empowering for the rest of us.

The Xbox adaptive controller changed the way our family plays together. I hope more businesses consider adapting their products for the disabled community. It’s a game changer, not only for the disabled individual, but for everyone who loves them.

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