May 20 marks Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a celebratory event where businesses and individuals raise awareness and praise the ever-growing acceptance of digital accessibility and the disabled community. For 10 years, GAAD has utilized its platform to provide a voice for disabled individuals and highlight the shortcomings that continue to plague varying sites and companies.
While corporations like Microsoft, Sony, and Logitech have created and prioritized accessible tech and inclusion, work remains. Certain platforms in the gaming industry, namely streaming sites like Twitch and Facebook Gaming, house incredible communities that foster growth, yet fail to fully commit to providing an accessible and welcoming home, namely for disabled streamers.
Chris Robinson originally began streaming in 2011 to host fighting game tournaments for a collegiate club. After an approximate three-year hiatus, Robinson returned to streaming, this time adopting both a new moniker in “DeafGamersTV” as well as a new mission to teach developers and the able-bodied alike about the struggles that often accompany deaf and hard-of-hearing players when gaming.
“This was the start of my journey as a gaming accessibility advocate for deaf and hard-of-hearing gamers because I felt that I needed to share my struggles as a deaf gamer and that I needed to speak up about the lack of accessibility in games that should’ve been a normal thing by now,” Robinson says. “Like for subtitles, we deaf gamers don’t just want simple subtitles, we want to be able to adjust the size, position, font, color, and so many more to our liking so that we can feel comfortable while playing.”
As his audience grew, Robinson’s advocacy transitioned beyond his scheduled streams. Studios like Ubisoft and Microsoft have invited him to give insight on game accessibility, and he has even sat on panels at conventions like TwitchCon and the Gaming Accessibility Conference to raise awareness for disabled gamers. Each presentation is indicative of an industry that is willing to listen and document the concerns of the disabled community.
Despite the increasing adoption of accessible features and practices, Twitch still lacks crucial options that would not only enhance the experience but increase the overall ease of access for disabled streamers. For example, Robinson notes that more robust captions with adjustable size, position, and even color would make watching streams much easier for deaf and hard of hearing viewers. He also has hopes for a feature that would translate his signing into speech or text, allowing him to easily chat with his audience.
“This way I would be able to sign at my camera and chat without making everyone wait until I get to a safe point in the game where I won’t be attacked or whatever,” he says.
Further, Robinson laments the lack of a Disability tag on Twitch. This is especially perplexing as Twitch regularly includes tags for other marginalized groups, allowing individuals to find wholesome, like-minded communities where they can gather and watch their favorite streamers. Yet disabled viewers and content creators must rely on other social media platforms to advertise and find groups of their own. However, Robinson practices patience, and understands that changes take time.
“Sure, they may not tackle something right away, but they are listening.”
Carlos Vasquez’s streaming journey started with the intent of demonstrating his skills as a fighting game player. Even though Vasquez is totally blind, he prides himself on being able to provide high-level gameplay. Eventually, his streams, under the handle Obsrattlehead, transitioned to include a community where both able-bodied and disabled fighting game fans alike could interact, learn from one another, and even compete in friendly and competitive exhibitions.
“Today, the goal of my streams is to provide a welcoming space to help non-disabled gamers engage and become more comfortable with learning alongside the disabled community,” Vasquez says. “Our small but tight-knit crowd works as a team to make sure everyone who stops by a live stream leaves with a better understanding of accessibility and the ways in which it brings people together. I am proud we can work collaboratively to spread my message: enjoy gaming, no matter the circumstances.”
Vasquez’s advocacy within the fighting game community led to numerous opportunities to represent disabled players on a global stage. His presence at Evo, the Evolution Championship Series, in 2013 and Combo Breaker in 2019 afforded him the chance to connect with several developers from NetherRealm Studios, the company behind popular games such as Mortal Kombat and Injustice. As a result of these interactions, Vasquez was responsible for NetherRealm Studios adding key audio accessibility features, particularly through the form of environmental sound cues when characters approach interactive objects. This option, originally introduced in the first Injustice, can now be found in every title produced by the studio.
When streaming, Vasquez continues to keep accessibility in mind. Not only does he utilize a screen reader to read messages from his chat, he is also exploring new ways to incorporate closed captioning for deaf viewers. He even implements accessible solutions when designing and creating The Sento Showdown, a competitive tournament for blind and low-vision players hosted on Xbox.
“Our entire audience had a front row seat to witness blind gameplay and production in action, and we are confident that many viewers walked away with a renewed appreciation for the power of inclusive practices,” he says.
From third-party software to able-bodied assistance, Vasquez manages to find workarounds, especially when Twitch’s inaccessibility creates problematic effects.
“Typically, common screen readers like JAWS, Voice Over, and NVDA will all follow the Twitch site scripts, which make a screen reader announce the long list of viewer badges before getting to the name of the sender and, finally, their message,” he says. “For cases where messages load in mass quantities, this will overload a screen reader and sometimes cause it to shut down entirely. It makes it difficult to respond to chat messages in real time.”
Vasquez hopes to see third-party developers work with Twitch to create accessible add-ons for better streaming experiences. Overlays, alert animations, and chat notifications should be designed with accessibility in mind, he notes. He also echoes Robinson’s statement regarding a Disability tag to allow disabled viewers and streamers to connect. But while Twitch certainly needs to improve its accessibility, Vasquez’s streams create an environment where exceptional gameplay is celebrated regardless.
“My sighted audience understands the importance of my accessibility tools, engages with fellow blind and low-vision players in the chat, and everyone is encouraged to exchange gaming experiences with each other.”
In 2011, Michael Luckett suffered a C6 spinal cord injury after a motorcycle accident. Without the use of his hands, Luckett discovered and began utilizing adaptive equipment to play video games, streaming as MikeTheQuad. Eventually, adaptive gaming became the central focus for his streaming endeavors.
“My channel has always focused on educating the world on disabilities and gaming,” Luckett says. “When I started my channel, the first thing I wanted to ensure was that my brand aligned with my mission. That began with my name, MikeTheQuad. I wanted to create an identity that is easily deciphered. While misinterpreted by those without disabilities, I’ve found my name to be a great icebreaker to talk about disabilities.”
The primary tool within his streaming arsenal is the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a completely customizable device capable of utilizing varying switches, buttons, sticks, and even other controllers to create an entirely inclusive experience for those with physical disabilities. Like some streamers, Luckett displays several camera angles to showcase live reactions and how he plays, with particular emphasis on highlighting the Adaptive Controller.
“When the Xbox Adaptive Controller released, I knew I could use this tool to oversee visibility in disability awareness. The focus of my channel might look like it’s all about me, but I always become the shadow of the real star of my content—adaptive gaming,” he says.
While his disability does not affect how he operates his channel or interacts with his chat, Luckett notes that listening to the disabled community is crucial when designing features and services. Inclusivity is key, especially for marginalized groups, and actively acknowledging and recognizing disabled viewers and streamers should be a priority.
“Feedback from streamers with disabilities needs to be an ongoing conversation. I would like to have an actively seen resource group for employees with disabilities. If there’s already a team, this team needs to be active in releasing their innovations to the public,” he says.
Regardless of an individual’s disability, connecting through a public service like Twitch is crucial for socializing, networking, and feeling welcomed in an industry that, until several years ago, failed to support disabled players. While Twitch is an excellent avenue for understanding how disabled players game, the inaccessible features that continue to create barriers is proof that more work needs to be done. And as Luckett notes, more access is necessary.
“The biggest idea I try to push is ‘inclusive design,’ or a universal design. Inclusive design does not take away from anyone. It allows access to everyone.”