Playing in the Sandbox: Developing games for children with disabilities.

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Many have suggested that given the right environment, young people’s learning will developed at a faster rate. Archambault (2002) suggests that this is no different for young disabled people. With the appropriate computer interface, it is possible for disabled children to "regain trust in their capacity to learn, to think, to communicate, and finally to improve their own self image" (2002, p171). They add that the use of computers will also allow these children "the feeling of appurtenance to the same world: adults and other children use computers" (2002, p171). Not only do other children use computers, but also they play computer games. They also drive cars and fly planes, something that many disabled children will never be able to do – at least not in the real world. In a press article released by Microsoft, Russ Holland, the program director for the Alliance for Technology Access, suggests that simulated sports games are the most popular game for people with disabilities. He suggests that for children with disabilities "they may not be able to get down in the sandbox, but if we can simulate the sandbox in a game, they can have some of those same experiences" (Microsoft, 2000). He goes on to say that games are the easiest way to teach computer skills, however for the participants in this study, it was not about learning computer skills. These students enjoyed car simulators because it was the nearest that they will ever come to driving a real car. They believed it would help them learn control of their motorised wheelchairs. It also appeared to improve their self-image - they were doing something that the rest of us take for granted. Most of the participants interviewed for this research will never drive a car nor fly a plane, hopefully will never be in a street fight, and will almost certainly never be part of an elite anti-terrorist squad. However, in the three dimensional virtual world of computer games, they can do exactly that. Manly people, including the teachers and staff of the centre involved in this study, view computer games as mindless entertainment. But to these students, computer games provide an opportunity to experience what life may have been like if they did not suffer from cerebral palsy. Unlike most computer games designed for the personal computer, Microsoft Xbox and Sony Playstation games allow up to four players in the one game, on the same screen – the perfect multi-player environment for these students. However, Xbox and Playstation controllers are designed to be used with two hands, and at least normal dexterity with each hand, something cerebral palsy sufferers often do not have. This paper highlights many of the issues surrounding computer games and disabled children. It suggests areas on further study and opportunities for developments in this area. The also details the ongoing research with Cerebral Palsy students using computer games that help them "feel like real people".
Contact: Paul Kearney, School of Computing and Information Technology, Unitec New Z,
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