Special Effect – Working to Include Everyone
In my role as paralegal in the Child Brain Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp, I work with solicitors to seek compensation for children who suffer acquired brain injury as a result of negligence. Although our clients and their families show incredible courage and resilience in the face of trauma, adjusting to life after brain injury can sometimes be overwhelming for the child and their family.
Brain injuries can have a huge impact on a child and cause a wide range of symptoms including difficulties with fine or gross motor skills, cognitive skills and fatigue, among others. For some of our clients, the brain injury impacts their sight, speech, or hearing. All of these difficulties make it more challenging for our clients to engage in play as their uninjured peers do. This does not mean they cannot enjoy and benefit from play, but the sad truth is that all of our clients will miss out on some aspects of their childhood as a result of their brain injury.
Special Effect – Making Play Accessible
There are, however, many ways to support children with brain injuries to ensure that they can engage in play and participate in childhood social groups – even though COVID-19 restrictions have made in-person playgroups and sports activities much more difficult and often impossible. Specifically, I was introduced to a charity called Special Effect earlier this year. Special Effect is a U.K. based charity which specialises in making games accessible. Their team are experts in accessible technology, from eye-gaze equipment to working with video game creators on motor accessibility. They work with children as young as two and while they primarily provide access to computer or video games, they have also devised accessible systems for physical games – for example, to throw a ball for the family dog.
Special Effect enables people with physical disabilities to access video games through a personalised control set. They create tailored systems to enable children and adults to play, despite injuries and disabilities. For some this will be a normal controller with adaptations (e.g. ‘low force’ controllers, which are more sensitive to touch; this reduces the strain on fingers and hands for children with reduced grip strength and helps to reduce fatigue); others will need a combination of hand and foot controls fixed to a specialised seat. Special Effect offer ongoing support, ensuring that the equipment is amended or updating according to changing needs. The equipment will be loaned to the client for a trial period, and when the set-up has been finalised, they’ll provide advice on what equipment to purchase and where to purchase it from. These personalised set-ups take into account the child’s capabilities and what they need to do for the games they want to play – for example, Josh (whose story you can read in more detail here, has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, and wants to play football-based video games. Josh has good use of his right hand and good gross motor function in his left arm, so Special Effect adapted an X-Box controller to be used right-handed only and created a large joystick and set of buttons to be used with his left arm. The equipment can be used while Josh is using a standing frame which supports Josh’s physiotherapy needs with an element of play, making it enjoyable.
Special Effect also work with clients who can only move their eyes. They have developed a website of games which use eye-gaze technology, which works by tracking eye movements and translating it into text or game controls. For some children with brain injuries, eye-gaze technology can become their main method of communication, but getting used to the machines can be a steep learning curve for them and their family. Special Effect’s expert StarGaze team create individual set-ups for people who are paralysed after an injury or accident and the StarGaze team can be on hand in the recovery period, even providing assessments and gaming equipment while the client is in hospital. The team can help to provide some element of self-sufficiency and normality, which is so important for people going through traumatic changes. Combining practicing the use of the eye-gaze technology with games makes it enjoyable and less daunting, so that it is a bit easier for children with acquired brain injuries to get used to the new machines.
If you think that you or someone you know might benefit from an assessment with Special Effect, you can be in touch with them via the contact form on their website.
Play – Why it Matters
Compared to the essential services that the medical and therapeutic care team offer our child clients, it may seem trite to suggest that they need further specialist equipment and expertise in order to play. Nevertheless, that is often exactly what children with brain injuries do need. What Special Effect offer is the ability to stay connected with the hobbies a child had before an injury – or, in the case of children who were injured at birth, a chance to join in with their peers. It’s estimated that children in the U.K. spend around 12 hours a week playing games online and many will form meaningful, life-long friendships entirely based on playing video games together. Moreover, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over the past eighteen months almost all social interaction has been online, and for children and teenagers this is likely to have included plenty of hours playing with friends virtually. It is a great way for children who are immunocompromised to stay safe and stay involved in their social groups. Playing together online fosters all kinds of social bonds and while it’s not a direct replacement for seeing friends in person, it can be really beneficial where in person isn’t an option. Additionally, being able to access the internet is a really vital skill, and Special Effect provides equipment so that children with physical disabilities can use a computer – this can encourage the development of digital literacy which will set them in good stead for their adult lives, besides being a crucial link to friends and family.
There are obvious benefits to being able to play with other children or with family, but even being able to play alone can help to improve self-esteem and confidence. As much as “shooters” like Call of Duty have had a bad rap from the press, there are many of other games available. Many solo games made for younger children will nurture their problem solving skills, encourage pattern-finding, build literacy or numeracy, or engage them in a narrative. And even if the game of choice doesn’t have a strong educational benefit – as long as it’s fun and enjoyable for the child, that’s more than enough reason for them to play the game!
The child brain injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp work to seek compensation for children with brain injuries. The aim of compensation is to put the person who makes a claim for compensation in the position they would have been in had they not been injured; many of our clients miss out on playing and interacting with other children as a result of their injuries, which is devastating and unacceptable. That’s why we encourage our clients to play in whatever form they can. We consider the benefits of various kinds of play for our clients and the medico-legal experts in the claim as well as the treating team of clinical professionals will give advice as to whether the play in question will be safe and beneficial for the child. Several of our clients benefit from hippotherapy/equine assisted therapy (you can read more about that here), where their therapeutic team use horseback riding to develop motor skills, and in some cases speech and language skills. Learning to ride a horse can also boost a child’s confidence in their physical abilities, just as other forms of play, which is crucial for their mental and physical wellbeing. Hippotherapy is a form of recreation which creates opportunities for therapeutic movement and exercise, as well as interaction with other children and with animals, all of which are aspects of a normal childhood and that our clients should be able to access. For other clients we explore specialised bicycles or trikes so that the child can go on bike rides with their friends and family. Special Effect is also not the only charity that works with disabled children to give them access to games; we work closely with a charity called Cerebra which supports children with brain conditions. They have an Innovation Centre which has designed and created equipment, such as adapted climbing harnesses to enable children with cerebral palsy to use a swing set in a playground (which you can read more about here.
Gaming – Worth Making Accessible
Many of the clients of the Child Brain Injury team have acquired brain injuries as a result of road traffic accidents or clinical negligence. Others, who were injured at birth, will see their injuries change as they grow older. For all our clients, one of the things we and their families would most like to see is that they can still enjoy themselves despite their disabilities. Charities like Special Effect provide a way for children with disabilities feel less isolated from their friends and family and help them find ways to have fun – and these are often-overlooked, but crucial, benefits.