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How AbleGamers Turned an Old Coast Guard Facility to a Hub for Disabled Gamers

The AbleGamers Charity has been helping the disabled get into gaming since 2004, but the 501(c)(3) nonprofit is continuing to search for ways to expand its reach beyond its humble West Virginia home base.

Last week, the organization was proud to unveil the AbleGamers Center for Inclusive Play, a new facility in Charles Town, West Virginia. Located roughly an hour from Washington DC, this new center allows for further one-on-one consultations with disabled gamers, along with new resources that were not available to the charity's original Harpers Ferry location.

There's a lot to unpack in the AbleGamers' new building, so Shacknews reached out to COO Steven Spohn and CEO Mark Barlet to learn more about how the facility came to be, the charity's overall goals for the new area, and where they're looking to go from here.

Shacknews: Can you walk me through how the deal for the new facility came to be?

Mark Barlet, The AbleGamers Foundation CEO: The space was being vacated by a US Coast Guard contract and the opportunity was presented to us. We had an existing friend in Level Access who told us they would love to support us if we presented the organization with a project that would improve our capabilities. I presented them with a proposal: we needed more space. We wanted to expand so that we could grow our charitable mission to support disabled gamers, but such a space would cost more than we could afford without having a negative impact on our capabilities.

My pitch was, "We want to take a leap and grow the mission to fill the space, but we don’t want to take resources from our momentum." Tim [Springer], the CEO of Level Access said, "Sure, we'll do that and own the cost." The new space, thanks to the support from Level Access, let us take a leap forward that we just could not do in a single step otherwise.

Shacknews: What does this new location allow AbleGamers to do that the previous facility in Harpers Ferry did not? What types of new resources do you now have at your disposal?

Steven Spohn, The AbleGamers Foundation COO: We are still located in Harpers Ferry, but we have moved to a much larger facility. This new facility will allow us to help impact the community as well as further the mission of helping gamers with disabilities. In the new facility, we will have extra gaming laboratory space, an entire room dedicated to technology that will help people go through all of the tools we have to offer and a quiet room to have some peace and quiet for those overwhelmed by the kinds of accessible and assistive technology we have for them to try. Also streaming room is much bigger, which will allow for better quality fundraising efforts.

Barlet: Our old space was not as functional as we would have liked. It started as a rental office of the building owner. They had moved out, and gave us a great deal on the space, but it was never really ours. Our "Front Room" where we did assessments had a large closet that housed the fire suppression system. It was also the place where we stored things, as well as just a place to hang out. Our "Studio" was a workshop space. Think cement floor, huge roll up door, and because the space was the rental office at one point, a huge closet that contained the telecom equipment for the whole building. The deal we made with them even meant that for us to do a stream, the first thing we had to do was move the industrial riding mower that they stored in our studio when we were not using it.

The Center for Inclusive Play, because it was built for the Coast Guard, is an accessible dream! All of the doors are 32" wide, vs the standard 28", this means gamers in wheelchairs can navigate the center much easier. Our bathrooms (plural) are now fully accessible, and even have showers (which is great for a multi-day stream, when people start to get a little ripe). The Coast Guard even had cut-outs in the bathrooms and kitchen so that people in wheelchairs can wash their hands. The space is perfect for what we want to do.

As for new resources the space gives us: we now have rooms where distinct activities can take place. We have a space for us to assessments, and after we have found a solution, we can move over to our gaming space and play games in a more home-style setting, making sure that the new solution will work. That space also gives us a place to put caregivers. Many of the gamers that come in want some one-on-one time with our assessment team; no one wants to play a game for the first time knowing they may not be great at it, and have witnesses that go home with them. The caregivers can go to the other room.

We have a place where our 3D printers live, a proper studio with a carpet on the floor and no lawnmower!

More work can get done here as well by our volunteers, who are no longer crowded together. We went from two desks in one small office to having four to five people working at any given time comfortably.

Shacknews: Can you describe the livestreams you hope to run from the new studio? How often do you hope to produce content?

Spohn: In the new facility, we will be able to produce video content much more frequently. So far our efforts have been dedicated to helping people with disabilities in-person, through one-on-one consultations, but now we will be able to produce video content that helps people who have not yet been seen by us or might not want to go through the process. We would tell you more but you'll just have to wait and see!

Shacknews: For those unfamiliar with your charity, can you describe your consultations with disabled gamers? Primarily, how would they work?

Spohn: Someone with a disability reaches out to AbleGamers through our website, Twitter or Facebook. Or they might reach out to us at one of our many disability gaming events. From there, we ask them general questions about their desires and level of ability as well as their challenges. We will tell them as much as we can about the situation without going into specifics. If they would like to speak in detail and find out exactly what they need for their particular situation, we schedule them for a one-on-one consultation either at our facility or over Skype. Our game accessibility experts have become extremely efficient at identifying exactly what equipment someone needs, whether that be off-the-shelf equipment, custom-made equipment, or a combination of the two.

Barlet: Once at the center we start with a tour. Our video game developer friends have given us some cool things over the years. We have a full-size Power Armor from Fallout standing in our kitchen that we have to dust now and then. For visitors, it’s among the coolest things they will see that day.

After the tour we go to the Accessibility Lab. This is where we have the tools of our trade. We work with the gamer and find a solution to fit their needs.

Once we have a solution, and if time permits, we go over to the gaming space. The idea here is to get out of the clinical space where we examine what challenges someone has, and move into a space that feels like home. This is where we test if the controller we’ve picked out or designed for them is really going to work for them.

If we need to custom-make something, and many times we do, we chat in the game space. We ask questions about their space… do they game from a bed? Do they have a special gaming table? This helps us understand what we need to keep in mind as we make things.

Lastly, if they have already been approved for a grant, we hand them the new controller and send them home to get to gaming!

Shacknews: How does the new facility improve your day-to-day interaction with the disabled gamers of your community?

Spohn: The important part of this sponsorship was the ability to have entire rooms dedicated to the massive amount of equipment we have. With over 33 million gamers with disabilities, there are so many combinations of equipment and every disability as a slight different set of challenges. So, this larger facility allows us to hold more equipment and have more tailor-made gaming setups ready to go, generally lowering the wait time and making the consultation processes.

Shacknews: Are there plans to expand and establish facilities beyond West Virginia?

Spohn: Right now we have our major facilities in West Virginia, but we also have people dedicated in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Boston and Los Angeles. We hope to have facilities in many major cities in the future. That would allow us to treat people in person and do one-on-one consultations in the flesh, which is always better than over Skype. Unfortunately, America is a big country and we only have so much money to establish these facilities. But we're getting there! We help anyone who asks as fast as we can.

Shacknews: For those that are not based in West Virginia, what's the best way a person can volunteer with AbleGamers or help any disabled gamers they might know?

Spohn: Anyone can volunteer and sign up for our fundraising campaigns at A Day To Game -- Right now our funding levels are not sufficient to treat as many people as are coming to us for help. All donations are sincerely appreciated as it allows us to enable those with disabilities to play the games we all know and love. If you are a disabled gamer or you know a disabled gamers who could use our help, you can go to our website and fill out the application. We will get back to you as quickly as we can!

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