Recently, Valve unveiled the Steam Deck, a system that grants players access to their Steam libraries on the go. With a design akin to a Nintendo Switch, the Steam Deck is the latest attempt by the development studio to enter the handheld market. While beneficial for those who travel or those who cannot afford a gaming PC, its announcement highlights the notion that handheld devices are not always the most accessible for disabled individuals.
Whether it’s the standard Nintendo Switch, Switch Lite, Backbone One controller, or simply a smartphone, mobile and handheld devices comprise a large selection of the gaming market. And even though the regular Switch model includes a bevy of controllers and accessibility features like fully customizable controls, no disability is the same. Certain accommodations and options that work for one person may not be beneficial to another. Players who are blind/low vision, those with arthritis, or even individuals with disabilities that restrict the use of their hands are unable to properly see screens or grip controllers or systems when playing.
Content creator Steve “BlindGamerSteve” Saylor struggles to properly use handheld devices due to low vision. With nystagmus, a disability that causes involuntary eye movement, Saylor’s vision with glasses is 20/200 and approximately 20/1400 without. As a result, he needs to sit incredibly close to screens to properly play. Despite the, well, handheld capabilities of handheld devices, the screens are often too small.
“Whenever I have to use an iPhone or tablet, I have to have the screen pretty close to my face,” Saylor says. “Anytime I’m using a handheld device like a Nintendo Switch, I generally have to hold it really close to my face in order to be able to see anything that’s happening on screen. I can’t hold it at a more comfortable, ‘normal’ angle because I would just miss a lot of information and a lot of detail because of the screen size,” Saylor says.
To help mitigate the small size of screens, Saylor will often use accessibility features such as zoom or magnification on devices like the Switch. However, if a system lacks this setting, he must then rely on scalable fonts and user interfaces built into individual games, if the games offer those features. Even so, the overall size poses another issue: physical strain.
“Generally, because I’m having to sit pretty close or hold the device close to my face, my neck actually hurts quite a bit, as well, because I’m having to bend it so much to see the screen,” he says. “So, 2 to 4 hours is generally what I can do without really any physical pain, because after that, it can become an issue.”
Aside from straining his neck, Saylor notes the awkward positioning can also hurt his eyes. He hopes that future devices offer larger screens and more gamers implement accessibility features that allow players to customize on-screen fonts and UI, as well as the capability to transfer games to different screens like a television or computer monitor. “It actually would benefit my play time on a console or PC if that option was available in the game itself.”
Samantha Blackmon, a podcast producer and associate professor at Purdue University, echoes Saylor’s sentiments. Those with arthritis or disabilities that affect the muscles or tendons in hands may find it difficult to play for long periods, and the design of the Steam Deck or the Switch are no exceptions. For Blackmon, extensive gaming sessions on mobile or handheld devices simply aren’t feasible due to her disability.
“I find that if I play games on these devices for too long—more than 45 to 60 minutes usually—I not only experience hand and wrist pain, but that it can also cause the muscles in my hands to seize and my left thumb to become stuck in the position that it is in in order to use the analog stick,” Blackmon says. “I also find that use of these devices for consecutive days can cause a tendon in the back of my hand to ‘leak’ and form a small but painful lump on the back of my hand.”
Physical therapy and exercise can help with these adverse effects, she says, but having to resort to them is no way to game or enjoy a pastime. As a result, Blackmon prefers smaller controllers and systems that allow her to play for longer periods of time without physical discomfort. For her phone, she uses the Backbone One, and for consoles she prefers the smaller, lighter Switch Lite to its larger predecessor. Yet smaller controllers and devices are not without their own issues.
“With the full-sized Switch in docked mode I can use certain 3rd party controllers (usually the ones designed for smaller hands,) because they allow me to play without hyperextending my thumbs and that reduces thumb pain. However because of the smaller size they can cause the muscles in my hands themselves to become more tired and to cramp because of the need to wrap my larger hands around a smaller controller,” Blackmon says.
The overall size and ergonomics of gaming peripherals and systems is a crucial component for people with physical disabilities. Disabled people are too often unable to comfortably hold, let alone play, games because of the weight and size of controllers and handhelds. This issue especially extends into individuals who require extensive customization before a device is considered accessible for them.
Content creator Humphrey “NoHandsNZ” Hanley cannot hold devices at all due to his disability. With epidermolysis bullosa, Hanley must rest each piece of tech on either his knees or a flat surface like a table. He says weight isn’t a concern, but what does matter is the layout and spacing between the buttons on a device or its controllers.
“With my disability, I've lost the use of all my fingers except a small amount of one thumb, essentially being 'handless.' So by the very nature of this, most 'handheld' devices are off limits to me and my range of motion,” Hanley says. “I've been able to, with a limited amount of success, use the Nintendo Switch in some capacity to play less competitive things like Animal Crossing New Horizons. I haven't come across any useful modifications, but by taking each action one at a time, I can move sticks around and bump buttons while resting the Switch on my knee or a table.” For people like Hanley, the Steam Deck is less of a revolutionary device, and yet another handheld with features he’ll have to adapt to using, if he decides to buy one at all.
Standard controllers are barely accessible, and until the release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, Hanley was unable to purchase a console like the Xbox. As such, he relies on adaptive equipment that allows him to customize the positioning and placement of the various inputs, buttons, and sticks. And for future pieces of equipment, Hanley hopes developers keep accessibility in mind.
“Better controller-based support to allow for a device like the XAC could help,” he says. “Accessories to help hold the device or create a lap rest for the device. Key remapping or even alternative replacement stick and button options for softer/taller buttons also would help.”
And with development, disabled people need to be included as early as possible. Yet no disability, nor individual with the same disability as another, is the same, and as such Blackmon suggests involving several people with a bevy of disabilities to make a product as accessible as can be.
“Working with consultants and testers with various disabilities would give them more insight into how accessible their products are for various people,” Blackmon says, “Just as with any other group of folks who share racial, cultural, or social backgrounds; disabled people are not a monolith.”