Indie Dev Interview: SpecialEffect CEO Mick Donegan
17 Mar, 2020
We hope you enjoy our Indie Dev Interview: SpecialEffect CEO Mick Donegan. Where we got to hear more hear more about his experience with the charity, the incredible impact it has and how others can help.
If you’ve not heard of SpecialEffect, it’s a charity that designs and adapts video games hardware and software to allow everyone to play games. The games industry charity is supported by some of the biggest names in gaming and runs a huge range of fund raising initiatives throughout the year.
Our Editor Harry Cole has been an ambassador of the charity for a number of years and Into Indie Games fully support the work it does. It’s was a great pleasure to interview SpecialEffect CEO Mick Donegan and you can read the full interview below.
Indie Dev Interview: SpecialEffect CEO Mick Donegan
Please introduce yourself, your organisation and your role.
I’m Mick Donegan, CEO of SpecialEffect, a charity that helps people with even the most severe physical disabilities to play video games.
“Video games offer the opportunity to level the playing field, to be included as an equal.” Mick Donegan, SpecialEffect.
Can you tell us about SpecialEffect’s work, why was it created, why is it so important?
SpecialEffect started thirteen years ago because I felt it had to. As Head of IT and Deputy Head of a large Special School followed by the Deputy Directorship of a children’s assistive technology charity, I’d realised there was a largely unfulfilled, yet crucially important need amongst severely physically disabled people – the need to play.
Over many years, more and more parents of the children I was helping said “Thanks for the help you’re giving my child to use technology in school – but do you know where we can find technology to enable them to play? Is there technology to enable them to relax and play either by themselves or with friends when they get home in the afternoon? How can they play with their brother and sister? How can they play with their grandparents?”
For me, video games offer the opportunity to level the playing field, to be included as an equal. We worked out a setup for young Xbox fan Elliott, who has cerebral palsy: “It just makes him the same as everyone else,” his mum told us. “He’s naturally competitive, and this puts him on an equal footing.”
For Ajay, a 35-year-old IT support analyst with spinal muscular atrophy, there are different benefits. We created a chin-controlled, voice operated control system for him. “It’s something to look forward to when I come home from work,” he told us. “When I come home, or on the weekend, there’s not much to do and I used to get bored. For me, video games are about escapism. You can get away from your problems for a little while.”
However, our one-to-one solutions don’t just benefit individuals. The insight and detailed knowledge we gain from the one-to-one, life-long assessment and support we provide puts us in a perfect position to share what we learn with both hardware and software developers worldwide so that they have an opportunity to incorporate our ideas. Put simply, by implementing a feature that has worked successfully for just one individual, literally tens of thousands of disabled people with similar access needs right across the world can benefit, too.
“Some people might imagine that my decision was prompted by empathy but, to be honest, it’s always felt more like a fire in my belly.” Mick Donegan, SpecialEffect.
You could have gone into many fields, why did you choose this path?
I have a cousin who is a little younger than myself who has both a learning and physical disability. I was deeply upset when he couldn’t say my name, no matter how hard he tried. I think it might have been this which first set me off along the road to assistive technology.
I decided to do whatever I could to use technology to try to reduce the anger and frustration that can occur when disabled people know exactly what they want to do but their body just won’t let them. Some people might imagine that my decision was prompted by empathy but, to be honest, it’s always felt more like a fire in my belly.
“The difference that access to videogames can make to their quality of life can sometimes be truly transformational.” Mick Donegan, SpecialEffect.
What are some of the golden moments where you realise how life changing the charity is?
With video games there are no borders or boundaries to the countries in which they are played. The only boundaries are those within the games themselves for those people who are unable to play them.
However, as a result of our help, many severely disabled people cannot only compete with, but even beat, non-disabled gamers – sometimes even the professionals. The difference that access to videogames can make to their quality of life can sometimes be truly transformational.
Tom, who had a progressive condition and hadn’t been able to play his favourite game for 15 years, simply said ‘Thank you for giving me my life back.’ It’s feedback like this which affirms the importance of SpecialEffect’s mission on behalf of the people we do our best to help and, on a personal level, makes it all the more worthwhile.
It’s a family charity, how big is the team?
The team has grown steadily over the years to meet demand for our services. There are now 28 full-time and part-time staff based at our office in Oxfordshire. They are a mixture of specialist occupational therapists, technologists, research staff and administrators, plus teams that handle finance, fundraising and communication.
The staff work as a team to help severely disabled individuals on a face-to-face basis, and the blend of occupational therapy and technology skills is important to ensure we can take a holistic approach, taking into account factors such as comfort, safety, environment and existing equipment integration as well as the adapted gaming technology. We also are very lucky to have a large team of volunteers who help us in many ways, for example providing help and events at exhibitions.
“Becky and hundreds of other eye gaze users all over the world are also able to have full control of Minecraft on PC’s using gaze control alone, too.” Mick Donegan, SpecialEffect.
Technology has changed a great deal since you began, what are the notable advances?
In specific relation to videogames, I think that some of the most notable changes have included the Xbox Adaptive controller and the Logitech Assistive Switch Kit. We were involved in the development and trialling of both of these hardware accessibility resources and feel that they are both very welcome resources. They are not only opening up access to gaming opportunities for many more people with physical disabilities across the world but also having a hugely positive impact on the actual design of videogames themselves.
Another notable advance has been the availability of low-cost gaze control technology systems specifically for gaming on PCs which are providing greater opportunities for enhanced accessibility for people who can only control the movement of their eyes. For example, one of our young Ambassadors, Becky “Eye Gaze Girl” Tyler, has full control of The Sims 4 using just her eyes instead of a mouse. In addition, using our freely-downloadable ‘EyeMine’ interface, Becky and hundreds of other eye gaze users all over the world are also able to have full control of Minecraft on PC’s using gaze control alone, too.
Indie Dev Interview: SpecialEffect CEO Mick Donegan
As the gamers charity, you’re supported by the entire industry. Can you tell us about some of the amazing organisations and initiatives you’ve done?
As well as the initiatives above, we are currently collaborating with a number of games developers that we’re unfortunately unable to share at this stage due to non-disclosure agreements.
However, one current collaborative project that I can talk about is our ‘Eye Gaze Games’ project with the help of developers ‘Sun and Moon’ of Bristol, due for release later this year. This browser-based suite of games will be freely playable online to anyone in the world, whether on a mobile or PC.
The games will not only be playable using eye moment but also head movement, joystick, switch control, etc. Games such as Chess and Draughts will not only be playable by almost anyone, anywhere on the planet, but gamers will also be able to play with anyone on the planet, whether they are in an intensive care unit in Bristol or on a bus in Bangalore!
There will also be a driving game, bagatelle-style game, etc. As well as a resource that enables anyone, anywhere to play, at the same time it is also a freely available resource where developers all over the world can have an easy, hands-on way to discover ideas about how to make their own games more accessible too.
“It’s those moments when we enable someone who thought that they would never be able to join in suddenly realises that they can…” Mick Donegan, SpecialEffect.
What are some of the incredible experiences the charity has given you?
There have been so many that it’s impossible to choose which ones! However, they can be summed up by saying that it’s the moments when our team has achieved a solution that meets the needs of someone with particularly severe physical challenges, however long this might take and whatever modifications we might need to along the way.
It’s those moments when we enable someone who thought that they would never be able to join in suddenly realises that they can and, in so doing, is able to open the door to a place from which they thought they’d forever be excluded.
“The biggest challenge is how to help everyone with a severe physical disability.” Mick Donegan, SpecialEffect.
What are the challenges in running the charity? The demand for SpecialEffect has risen globally.
The biggest challenge is how to help everyone with a severe physical disability, wherever in the world they might be, with a team of only 30 people.
Nonetheless, by using (a) the experience and expertise of our specialist team, which increases daily as a result of our face-to-face assessment and support service, combined with (b) our online training resources which are designed to help both professionals and end-users, plus (c) our collaboration with gaming hardware and software developers to make their games more accessible at source, we strive to make the biggest global impact that we possibly can.
It is indeed, a huge challenge but, throughout my career in assistive technology, I’ve always found inspiration in these words from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
How can people get involved and support SpecialEffect?
We don’t charge for any of our services so we’re reliant on fundraising to cover all our costs. That’s why the support we’ve received from so many people has been so crucial, be it from car rallies, football tournaments, celebrity lunches, concerts, bake sales… so many appreciated sources.
And of course we’re absolutely indebted to the games industry for their support. Every year we run an event called One Special Day, where we invite companies around the world to contribute a single day of revenue from one or more of their games, and the response has been phenomenal. This year we’ve identified Friday 2nd October as the date for One Special Day.
Another big highlight is our GameBlast weekend, the UK’s biggest annual charity gaming weekend, when we ask gamers and gaming communities to organise their own sponsored gaming marathon or gaming-themed event during a weekend in February. It’s a kind of ‘Children In Need’ for Gamers and we absolutely love it. At its core it’s essentially reflecting what we ourselves do: gamers helping gamers.
We’re also involved in a whole host of challenge events, and I was amazed and honoured that we fielded the biggest team of runners in the ASICS London 10k last year. There are details of all our challenge events on our website
We’re also reliant on our amazing family of volunteers, so whatever your skills and availability, you could be an essential part of our team. Without volunteer help we’d be unable to effectively deliver many of our fundraising events and reach as many people as we do. You can visit our website for all the details about getting involved with SpecialEffect, including donation information. Thanks for your support and interest.
Thanks for reading our Indie Dev Interview: SpecialEffect CEO Mick Donegan, for more interesting articles on the indie games industry, check out the links below.
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