It’s likely you’ve heard of AbleGamers, the nonprofit that’s been working for over a decade to make the gaming industry more inclusive of those with disabilities. Its founder, Mark Barlet, is a veteran with his own service-related disability who started the organization after Multiple Sclerosis nearly robbed his best friend of the ability to play games – a shared hobby that kept them digitally connected when thousands of miles away.
AbleGamers launched with a simple mission: to create a community for disabled people who loved video games and used them to interact with the world. It took years of trial and error and boots-to-the-ground networking on Barlet’s part to transform that premise into a story of how one person can create meaningful change by addressing the systemic issues inherent in a billion-dollar industry.
But that story’s already been told. What Barlet wants now is to focus on the next chapter.
“A story that I really want told is not about our history, but of our future,” he tells UPROXX. “We know who we are as an organization. [Now] we need to grow smartly into our best self.”
That inspired energy to push AbleGamers into the future comes thanks to a pandemic that helped spotlight the challenges disabled gamers face better than any convention or diversity panel ever could. The organization was able to raise $2.5 million in just one year thanks to donations from companies like Twitch and individual charity streams. During a time when the world was forced to exist online and gaming became the go-to pastime, Barlet’s team was able to draw attention to the everyday hoops the disabled community must jump through to do something as simple as playing a video game.
“COVID really gave everyone a taste of what social isolation looks like,” Barlet admits. “But the dirty, dirty secret is that for the vast majority of profoundly disabled people, 2020 looked just like 2017.”
That’s because the disabled community has been using gaming to combat social isolation for a long time. It’s why one of AbleGamers’ directional tenets is to foster inclusion and representation within the industry. They do that on the ground with individual peer counseling, hardware assistance, and an in-house engineering team that creates custom equipment solutions for gamers whose physical disabilities make it difficult to, say, hold a remote controller or operate the pedals for a racing simulator.
They also affect change at a higher level, working with major developers to get closed captioning in certain games, training creators on ways to make their titles accessible from the first line of code. A few years ago, AbleGamers rigged a controller specifically for physically-disabled gamers, one that would serve as the inspiration for the Xbox Adaptive Controller – a breakthrough in terms of gaming hardware that the organization helped Microsoft bring to market.
Social media has also been a tool Barlet’s team has been able to repurpose, using Discord servers and Facebook groups to help gamers recommend new titles and share their experiences.
“Players with disabilities are using social media to make sure that, before they make a purchase, can they play that game?” Barlet explains. “Your decision on playing a game is, ‘Do I like the content of the game?’ For so many people with disabilities that is only step one. Then it’s about deep diving and understanding the feature sets within those games.”
Barlet has been working for years to make those questions easier to answer. Ideally, one day, disabled gamers won’t even be asking them anymore, but while the group continues to educate developers on how to make new series more accessible, the past year seems to have shifted the goalposts just a bit.
Barlet is the first to admit that while AbleGamers has done a “really good job of moving the needle” at the systemic level, they “did a really terrible job as a nonprofit organization.” What he means is that fundraising was never a priority in those early days, like it is for most new nonprofits. It’s only now, thanks to huge donations from Twitch and investments from streaming stars who have spent even more time curating audiences and collecting views, that the organization has been able to hire more full-time staff and recommit itself to becoming sustainable.
In other words, Barlet no longer has to wear 50 hats, he can allocate one hat to one team member and know that they’ll be giving that job – whether it’s counseling, reaching out to disabled gamers who’ve asked for help, organizing community events, or creating new adaptive tech – their full attention. The slowdown has helped the organization to focus on its core values and invest in the long game, so to speak.
“I think what I’m proud of is this moment in time,” Barlet says. “[the last two years] have given us an opportunity to have resources that we’ve not had resources before. We can invest in actually helping individuals with disabilities in a way that we never could before.”