When Brandon Amico entered his new stepson Thad's life, they created a lasting connection from playing video games together, like Halo or Smash Brothers. Thad loves gaming but has always struggled because he was born without a right hand.
"I would just be a lot slower at adapting and getting good, or just not good in general," Thad says.
In 2017, Amico read about the work that AbleGamers, a charity that works on behalf of disabled gamers, was doing to help people like him, so he reached out to them.
Thad, who's now 14-years-old, received a complimentary Xbox Elite controller, normally worth $150, which has programmable paddles on the back that allow him to use his left hand to control some of the finer right-hand movements of aiming and shooting. Now he excels at games like Rainbow Six Siege, where he regularly shines in ranked play.
Thad is one of many disabled gamers who've benefited over the past 17 years from the organizing work of AbleGamers, the most recognizable nonprofit organization for the disabled gaming community. Now, the organization's profile has gotten quite a bit larger.
After struggling like many nonprofits during the Covid-19 pandemic, AbleGamers chief operating officer Steven Spohn decided to do a birthday "Spawn Together" challenge. On September 15, 2020, his 40th birthday, he announced he was going to raise $1 million. Spohn says that keeping AbleGamers fully operational for a year takes approximately $2.2 million, so he wanted to make the challenge an annual event.
In November 2020, Twitch helped out by donating $1 million, money that Spohn says will go to hiring and distributing new controllers to disabled gamers like Thad.
"I think it was a combination of things that allowed the right atmosphere for this thundercloud of momentum to come," Spohn says.
Spohn vehemently denies his Twitter celeb status, but just before his big birthday announcement, he did a video with Ryan Reynolds. But Spohn chooses to think smaller in order to grow bigger: He brings together gamers and streamers and focuses on small-dollar donations to reach past his goal.
Misty "Imperialgrrl" Hungerford is a Twitch streamer and one of AbleGamers' Spawn Together fundraising "champions." Her 13-year-old son Alex has a disability, so she's keenly aware of the importance of the work AbleGamers is doing to make gaming accessible to everyone.
She says Spohn has been "really inspirational," and she is on board for 2021 and hopes to raise $50,000 as a Twitch ambassador.
Streamer Eleni, aka "Bloodyfaster," was another one of Spohn's champions, who used her platform to give disabled gamers a voice.
"So many of us banded together and managed to help out with this cause," she says. "But Steve really spearheaded the whole thing and just blew it out of the water."
While Spohn's fundraiser is poised to bring in millions to support AbleGamers, there's still work to do when it comes to changing the hearts of nondisabled gamers and the minds of game developers and console manufacturers. After all, Spohn says there are 46 million disabled gamers in the United States, and many of them still can't play popular games.
Amico and Bloodyfaster both say disabled gamers should be top of mind when it comes to creating a new game or a new piece of hardware. Amico says this means investing more in the development process and not focusing on putting out as many games as quickly as possible. He says he'd love to see an accessibility rating system for games.
Spohn says companies like Microsoft and Sony have made strides in making games more accessible. He was able to work with the development team at Microsoft that created the Xbox adaptive controller. Spohn said he's not really sure why other companies like Nintendo haven't gotten on board with similar projects, but he suspects it has a lot to do with not wanting the competition to know what's in the works.
But, he adds, "it doesn't matter what they're speculating on, it only matters what comes out. The only thing we can do is hope that it's enough of a priority now for these companies that they will push forward and make these adaptations a priority for the company and get these things out of the boardroom."
Amico hoped to encourage Thad to enjoy his favorite Nintendo games as much as Amico did when he was younger, but Thad currently can't play many of their games and has stuck with the Xbox, because Nintendo doesn't have an accessible controller.
Bloodyfaster says developers, manufacturers, and publishers have no excuses when it comes to making gaming more accessible. She said disabled gamers are an important part of any gaming company's target audience, so they should be listened to.
Being open to listening is something both Bloodyfaster and Thad suggested the gaming community do more often as well.
"I can play at the same level if not better than some people," Thad says. He said nondisabled people just aren't aware of how good disabled gamers can be. And AbleGamers helped Thad to get one step closer to his gaming goal: He just wants to be on the same level playing field as everyone else.