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Able-Gaming and Education-based Assistive Technology: Differences in Representation and Expectation

This is a rough--and beginning--version of a paper I am putting together for an upcoming conference. I welcome feedback and ideas.



Able-Gaming and Education-based Assistive Technology: Differences in Representation and Expectation



The increased use of assistive technologies – aiding in communication, literacy development, decision-making, community-making, and so on[i] – has been lauded by inclusive educators and disability scholars as a means to increase labelled students’ independence and recognition. At the same time, these same technologies often serve to mask or erase ability differences among students, or permit access to a classroom or educational space in ways that do not actively push against the normative power structures and expectations inherent in the classroom. In doing so, such technologies – or the implementation of them – can perpetuate rather than challenge dominant norms of educational practice. Rather—or in addition to—providing accommodations to students, assistive technologies can maintain processes of normalization and bodily privilege within and beyond the classroom. In many ways, discourses surrounding, defining, and normalizing assistive technology in the classroom link into discourses of deficit, need, and lack.

In my research, I have found that AT[ii] in the classroom is often characterized by divides in language: ‘educational technology’ is what is used in the classroom by everyone; ‘assistive technology’ is what is used to accommodate students with special needs. Technology is divided into categories: tech for everyone, and tech for those who are labelled as in need. This ethos, this way of understanding and defining technology in classroom spaces, serves to consistently mark students with a label and link that label into a status of need or lack—of deficit. Assistive technology is not embedded into the classroom experience, but it is seen as—and practiced as—an add-on feature. This is in contrast to the ways that assistive devices and software are characterized in able-gaming communities and in the gaming industry. Contra schools, online games and gaming communities have tended to opt for assistive technologies that are embedded into games, or devices that may be used to assist in the playing of games in a way that erases any difference between players: the assistive part of the technology is rendered invisible, and subsumed under the defining heading of ‘technology.’

The purpose of this paper is to compare and analyse these different spaces—schools and gaming spaces—in order to better account for and think through the ways that each community defines assistive technology, understands disability, and works to mark or erase differences in participants. My hope for this paper is to start to bridge the gaps between these two communities, to start a conversation across these communities, and to start to create a space where participants in these communities could learn from each other. Perhaps, together, these conversations can expand our understanding of ability, disability, difference, and accommodation. We can better ask and think through many important questions: How do discourses of technological innovation shape our understanding of ability and disability, citizenship and empowerment, learning and productivity? What can the use of assistive technology teach us about the meaning of valued abilities, accommodations, and design for all?

In this paper, I will first situate my research within the literature. I will then analyse a comparative analysis of 206 webpages devoted to talking about, defining, advertising, and creating community around the use of technology for either gaming or schooling spaces in order to accommodate participants with diverse needs. A brief methodology section will be followed by a Findings section. I will then conclude with some analysis of what this all means.

My hope is that will shed some light on the competing and complementary discourses around disability, gaps, and seamlessness that exist around assistive technology in both educational and gaming spaces. The Able Gamers Movement, as well as increased knowledge about and desire for assistive technology in the classroom, has created momentum for thinking about the ways that technology can enable participation, identity-making, community building, and learning. However, the gaming space and the classroom space often have varying discourses around what counts as a gap or impairment, as well as the purposes of assistive technology. There is a tension between using assistive technology so as to make impairment disappear—to create a seamless experience—or, on the other hand, to use assistive technology to spotlight disability, ability, and able-ism. These tensions come to the fore when we analyse the differences in how assistive technology is both used and described in schooling and gaming spaces. This paper is part of a larger project that explores both the differences in discourses, as well as some of the differences in software and hardware that are used in these different spaces; and aims to offer a macro-analysis of how these two fields are coming together in both productive and challenging ways to create notions of best practices.




While there has been much research on gaming, and a different community of research on assistive technology, there has been scant research comparing or combining the two fields. This is problematic, not only because interdisciplinarity tends to produce more interesting research, but because there is an increase in the use of and desire for gaming as part of educational spaces: the gamification of education. The Joint Research Centre for the European Commission delivered a 2013 report on the intersectionality and increasing intermingling of videogames, serious games, and gamification.[iii] Their report found, among other things, that educational institutions are increasingly turning toward the use of digital games in the classroom as a method of learning and assistance. It also found that the gaming industry is increasingly turning toward creating games that are meant to educate; or are even specifically designed to be used in schools. This increasing hybridity between the game industry and educational institutions calls for more research into how both fields understand the meanings and purposes of education, schooling, empowerment, disability, identity, and enablement. For example, there has been a good deal of research arguing for gaming in the classroom as it tends to increase student interest in multiple subjects, student self-efficacy, and even increases interest among students in the STEM fields.[iv] There has also been much research showing that students in need of accommodations find increased empowerment in the classroom when they have access to assistive technology and the infrastructure to support and teach the use of AT.[v] And, finally, there has been some research on ablegaming  and the impact of design for all strategies on online gaming communities and game producers.[vi] However, rarely has there been research that compares, or looks across, ball of these interests to take stock and analyse the ways that the different fields are talking about disability, and designing for accommodations. [vii]. This paper seeks to extend that conversation by providing an analysis of 206 webpages devoted to either ablegaming or assistive technology in schooling spaces. I used a computer program of my own making to analyse the content of each of these webpages. Webpages were scanned for content, word representation, and word collocation. These webpages were compared each to other webpages in one of two categories: education or gaming—depending on the purpose of the site. Then, these pages were compared across the two categories. A brief explanation of both the methodology and the findings follows.



            I used Google, as well as hyperlinks and the snowball method of data recruitment[viii], to find 206 webpages that dealt with the use of assistive technology as a mode of accommodation or enablement in the contexts of either schooling or gaming. That is to say, the audiences for these webpages were either      people interested in AT for schooling situations, or people interested in AT or design-for-all gaming devices/platforms/software. Using python—a computer programming language—scripts, I created a program that would crawl through the webpages, analyse the top 20 words used on the page, and then also run collocation and word pairings.[ix] I ran this word representation and collocation program on each webpage, across webpages within each category of education or gaming (based on the perceived audience for the webpage), and then I also ran the program across the categories. This method represents a computer aided version of discourse analysis.

In this way, I was able to get a generalizable survey of the kids of ways that AT is talked about in both schooling and gaming audiences, as well as a general sense of which devices are used and how. Most interesting, to me, are the ways that the discourse of ability, dis/ability, and technology shift across multiple webpages, devices, and audiences.



            There are several categories of findings. I have divided the various findings into” things I found across all webpages regardless of audience; things I found across webpages aimed at schooling or education; and things I found on webpages aimed at gaming.


General Findings:

·       Technologies used for accommodations in either gaming spaces or schooling spaces are aimed at white, middle class consumers. This conclusion is based off of the pictures used on the websites. The representation of white middle class bodies was ubiquitous.

·       Both schooling and gaming spaces linked into discourses around creating communities of support.

·       Both schooling and gaming spaces linked into the need to find employment—either now, or later in life.

·       Both spaces tried to create a sense of community and support.


Findings for Educational Technologies:

·       AT for education is designed to link into multiple functions, spaces, and devices. In other words, AT in education had to link into not only what was done using the computer/tablet/or mobile device, but it had to also link into the use of chalkboards, rulers, desks, chairs, pencils, and the other devices or ‘technologies’ embedded in the classroom space.

·       AT for education tended to characterize technologies as creating accommodations that were viewed as an ‘add-on’ to other devices or practices in the classroom.

·       AT in education validated the idea that users would need ‘expert’ support in order to use the device/platform/ or software.

·       At in education normalized the idea that there would be an expert at the school who could act as the go-between for the technology provider and the technology user.

·       AT in education, in general, seemed to be more expensive, but also have more funding options in order to get the technology for free or a reduced price.

·       AT for education tended to normalize the idea that students with disabilities were labelled or marked as different in their classroom, and that the use of AT would bridge the gap between ability and disability, while also marking students using AT as different because these students would have access to technology that would not be used by the rest of the class.

·       AT in the schooling context talked more about larger networks of people involved in the decision of which technology to use. For example, AT in the schooling context had information aimed at parents, students, administrators, inclusive teachers, special education teachers, and school technology specialists.

·       AT for education tended to validate perceived differences between the notion of parent, student, technology provider, and technology specialist. The expectation was that all involved would be able to talk with an expert, and would not have to make one’s own technology, or even understand how the technology works.

·       AT was seen as a black box—this is opposed to the maker mentality that tended to exist in gaming spaces.

·       In educational spaces, the term assistive technology was used almost 400 times.

·       AT in education webpages tended to presume the user was a child, and that the audience was an adult. The phrase “your child” came up almost 60 times across approximately 100 webpages.

·       AT for education websites used the term “special needs” (over 100 times across approximately 100 webpages).

·       The phrase ‘learning disabilities’ was strongly indicated across webpages focused on education, but was almost non-existent across webpages devoted to gaming. (In gaming contexts, the preferred phrase tends to be learning or cognitive impairment, but even these phrases were not strongly indicated in the textual analysis of webpages focused on gamers.)


Findings for Gaming Technologies:

·       AT in gaming spaces tended to be integrated—in a seamless and often invisible way—into the games or gaming devices themselves.

·       AT in gaming is about integration, not accommodation.

·       AT in gaming validated the idea that design-for-all meant that the user should not have to have any special expertise to use the technology.

·       AT in gaming validated the idea that all gamers should be able to play with each other without marking who had a disability and who did not.

·       AT for gaming was characterized as something that should be embedded in the game, so as not to cost extra.

·       When AT for gaming consisted of the use of a separate device or hardware, these technologies were characterized as cheap, and easy to get a hold of.

·       There were fewer total advertisements for extra and different devices/software on sites aimed at gamers than aimed at the schooling context.

·       AT for gaming tended to focus information on the would-be user of the technology, and did not tend to validate the idea that multiple people would be involved in the decisions regarding which game/platform/software/device to purchase.

·       Communities were formed not only around identity markers, but also around practices of building one’s own technologies or technological interventions. In other words, there were multiple posts on how to hack into a system to make it more design-friendly, or how to build your own hardware to accommodate various needs.

·       AT for gaming tended to validate a ‘maker’ mentality.

·       In gaming spaces, the term ‘assistive technology’ was rarely used. Instead, webpages tended to use the term ‘design for all,’ or tended to focus on specific interventions that could be integrated into existing systems.

·       AT for gaming sites rarely used the term ‘special needs’. In fact, at no time did this phrase come up as a top word or phrase in any of the webpages aimed at gamers.





Right now, I have more questions that I am thinking about than conclusions. I will reframe this section of the paper as I do some more thinking about it. But, right now, for me, the questions that come up are:

·       Is it productive to assume that all people interested in assistive technology for education are parents or professionals, or that the users of the technology have access to professionals who could help them navigate the technology?

·       Is the ability to feel like you could make your own assistive technology, or even the desire to make your own assistive technology, endemic to gaming communities; should there be a push to educate students/parents/schooling professionals on how to make one’s own AT devices/software?

·       Why are devices aimed at schools more money—in general—than devices aimed at gamers?

·       AT in the classroom tends to mark difference, with the goal of then bridging gaps and creating an equal playing field in the classroom. AT in gaming spaces tends to try and erase differences between players during play, still, with the idea of equalling the playing field during game play. Is the marking or erasing of difference inherently more radical, liberatory, or empowering for those in need of accommodation? Is it context dependent?

·       How does the erasure or marking of difference perpetuate links into discourses of deficit or lack?

·       How does the erasure or marking of difference perpetuate feelings of community and the ability to act toward empowerment?

·       What might be different if gaming communities turned their attention to schooling spaces, and if schooling spaces tried to learn more from or have conversations with gaming communities?


[i]              See, for example, Daniel K. Davies, Steven E. Stock; Michael L. Wehmeyer. (2003). A Palmtop Computer-Based Intelligent Aid for Individuals With Intellectual Disabilities to Increase Independent Decision-Making. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 28(4): 182-193.

[ii]Assistive Technology will now be called AT for the sake of brevity.


[iii]            James Stewart and Gianluca Misuraca for the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. (2013). The Industry and Policy Context for Digital Games for Empowerment and Inclusion: Market Analysis, Future Prospects and Key Challenges in Videogames, Serious Games and Gamification (European Commission).

[iv] See: Christopher Walsh and Thomas Aperthy in “Using gaming paratexts in the literacy classroom”. In: GLS 8.0: Games + Learning + Society Conference, 13-15 June 2012, Madison, WI, ETC Press, pp. 322–329. 2012. Also see: Jessica Stansbury and Geoffry Munro in “Gaming in the classroom: and innovative way to teach factorial design”. In Teaching of Psychology 40(2), pp. 148-152, April, 2013. Also see: Lorraine Beaudin and Gail Bailey in “Gaming in the classroom: gender considerations and promoting STEM careers”, in Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, Mar 25, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States ISBN 978-1-939797-02-5Publisher: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE), Chesapeake, VA. And, finally, see: Raymond Pastore and David Falvo in “Video games in the classroom: pre- and in-service teachers’ perceptions of games in the K-12 classroom”, In International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. 7 (12), pp. 53-61. 2010.

[v] See: Sigal Edin, Adina Shamir, and Maayan Fershtman in “The effects of using laptops on the spelling skill of students with learning disabilities,” in Educational Media International 48 (4) pp. 249-259. 2011. See also: Emily Bouck et al. “Fix It With TAPE: Repurposing Technology to Be Assistive Technology for Students With High-Incidence Disabilities” in Preventing school failure: alternative education for children and youth, 56 (2) pp. 121-128. 2012. Also see: Nadia Wilson, “Implementation of assistive technologies in classrooms: a shift in attitudes,” in MeD Thesis:

[vi]See: Andrew Prbyxyblski et al in “The ideal self at play: the appeal of video games that let you be all that you can be,” in Psychological Science 23(1) pp. 69-76, 2012. See also: Tracy Fulerton Game Design Workshop (CRC Press: Boca Raton, Florida, 2014). See also: Ernest Adams Fundamentals of Game Design (Pearson Education, 2014). And, see also: Robert Kraut et al. Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design (MIT Press: 2011).


[vii]The following articles hint at the ability to combine these fields, but without explicitly working from a cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspective. See: Tracy Gray et al. “Converging trends in educational and assistive technology,” in Breakthrough Teaching and Learning: How Educational and Assistive Technologies are Driving Innovation (Springer Sciene + Business Media, 2011). See also: Nick Preston et al. “Feasibility of school-based computer-assisted robotic gaming technology for upper limb rehabilitation of children with cerebral palsy,” in Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology June, 2014. See also: Chris Abbott et al. “Emerging issues and current trends in assistive technology use 2007–2010: practising, assisting and enabling learning for all,” in Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology November, 2014.

[viii]I’m using the term ‘snowball’ here in the sense that one source of data lead to another source of data in the same way that participants lead to other participants in the snowball method of recruitment. For more on the snowball method of recruitment, see: Douglass Heckathorn “Comment: Snowball vs. Respondent-driven sampling,” in Sociological Methodology 41(1) pp. 355-366, 2011.


[ix]I also authored a ‘skip list’ as part of this program. This made it so the words that were analyzed were ‘meaningful’ words, and not words like ‘the,’ ‘and,’ etc. I made the skip list based on trial and error with the program. For the full skip list, please contact the author.


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