The news came out last week that Xbox will debut a controller for gamers with disabilities. As is always the case when there's a new product or service out for people with disabilities, I thought: YEAH! Awesome! As is also typical, my next thought was not as happy.
Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller, which will be released later this year at a price of $99.99, allows users to play in a way that works best for them. It can be mounted onto wheelchairs or tables, it can be played with one hand, or set on the floor so that gamers can use the two large black buttons with their feet. It will be compatible with external joysticks, pedals, switches and buttons. Basically, it does everything a standard controller can do.
Super, of course. But: What took them so long? The Xbox came out in November 2001—that's 16 years ago. Max has been able play games that involve waving his hands, like bowling and tennis. But he can't play any that involve manipulating a controller because it is beyond his capabilities. I'm not saying that years of lost opps for playing video games is a tragedy. As if! This boy does not need any more screen time in his life. But why shouldn't the Xbox be fully accessible to him, same as any teen?
It's been my observation, over the years, that disability innovation at companies happens only if a person at a company is disabled or knows someone with disabilities, or a person with disabilities or a family member takes the initiative. I'm thinking of Tommy Hilfiger's line of adaptive clothing, designed by the awesome Mindy Scheier of Runway of Dreams; the mom of a child with muscular dystrophy, she collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger for his adaptive line. I'm also thinking of David Niemeijer, who created the first speech app Max ever used, the Proloquo2Go, for a friend who was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident.
And do you remember the story of the teen with cerebral palsy who wrote Nike, in 2012, asking for an sneaker with an adaptive closure because he had trouble tying his? Nike had had already been working on a model with a Velcro closure after their very first employee had experienced a stroke. The FlyEase came out in 2015; Max has a pair. While he can't yet put them on himself, the fact that they unzip in the heel makes it easy to slide his feet right in. Also: They look really cool.
The inspiration for Microsoft's Adaptive Controller, according to DiverseAbility Magazine, came during the company's 2015 One-Week Hackathon for employees. I wonder where that person got the idea from. I don't think this sort of thing should be occur by happenstance; more companies should regularly be encouraging their development staff to think about creating for people with disabilities. They should have entire hackathons devoted to disability, not to mention, dedicated teams.
Don't get me wrong, I am hardly ungrateful for advances that enable people with disabilities to enjoy all that life has to offer. It's just that as the mom of a teen with disabilities, it is frustrating to continuously face a lack of access, the kind not required by law. I mean, come on, Coke and Pepsi: how about a beverage bottle top that a person with fine-motor challenges could open and a bottle that's more grasp-able, too? Or a chocolate bar wrapper that opens super-easily for someone with stiff fingers, Nestlé? Or toys with bigger, easier-to-push buttons and dolls that are easier to dress for kids with disabilities, Mattel? Or adaptive pens, Bic? Or adaptive blazers, H&M? Or a tube of toothpaste my son could open and squeeze, Tom's? I could go on and on.
To be sure, often there are ways to adjust a product so it works for a person with disabilities, as Max's therapists have shown me over the years—a ring pull put on his jacket zipper so he can yank it, putty or rubber tubing placed around a pencil so he can grasp it. Cottage industries have sprung up around enabling devices and gadgets. But how amazing would it be if more products were inclusive to start with so that Max and others like him would feel more part of this world instead of always having to fix—and fight for—things. Yes, adaptations cost money. Yes, people with disabilities deserve them.
There are an estimated 40 million Americans with disabilities, or close to 13 percent of the population. It's been said that people with disabilities are America's largest minority, but the one who get the least amount of attention, consideration and protections. As the parent of a child with disabilities, I am hyper-aware of that. And this is why, each time an advance comes along for people with disabilities, I rejoice even as I feel bummed about how long it took to arrive, and how far we still have to go.