As social isolation orders lengthen, many individuals find themselves stuck within the confines of their homes. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, now is the perfect time to purchase a new video game system. Yet, certain consoles may prove inaccessible for those with physical disabilities, specifically disabilities that impair fine-motor skills.
I suffer from one of those disorders. At 13 months old, I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II, a neuromuscular disorder that progressively weakens my muscles. As a lifelong gamer, I’ve both praised and lamented the accessibility of varying systems. Each new console generation came with the brutal realization that I might not be able to participate alongside my able-bodied peers.
When I first purchased the Nintendo Switch, I failed to complete the intro sequence to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I was frustrated, and my initial reaction was to dismiss the system as entirely inaccessible. And yet, after months of personal research and interacting with the disability community, I was surprised to learn of its flexibility.
That flexibility extended further still earlier this month. On April 13, 2020, Nintendo implemented system update Version 10.0.0, adding customizable controls for officially licensed Nintendo controllers. With a total of five presets that can be saved per controller, per system, players can create a total of 15 unique layouts to accommodate their physical limitations. This latest system update, coupled with the immense array of customization options available both through Nintendo and the enthusiastic community of artists and designers that has coalesced around the Switch, has made Nintendo’s latest system incredibly accessible.
Last month, Launcher published a guide to getting into gaming. This follow-up guide will explore solutions and recommendations for physically disabled individuals looking to start gaming — and why we think the best console to start with is a Nintendo Switch.
The Switch behaves unlike most traditional video game systems. The console itself is a small tablet, which can be played on the go in handheld mode, or plugged into a dock to connect to a larger screen. This provides disabled players with a choice of how to play.
Admittedly, a fully constructed Switch tablet — the portable option, with the controllers, called Joy-Cons, attached to the screen — offers little in terms of accessibility. At just over 4x9 inches, the tablet may be too bulky for physically disabled gamers to properly grasp, and some players may struggle to reach the top bumpers on each Joy-Con.
However, the small tablet can also be disconnected from the controllers and propped up on a kickstand. The flexibility of this tabletop mode of play is the Switch’s primary selling point for the physically disabled, who may struggle to hold items. In this mode, disabled individuals can place the system on any table, tray or shelf which is suitable for their height, making the Switch adaptable to rooms or areas which are designed with disabled players in mind.
Joy-cons, the standard controllers available with every Switch, offer little accessibility while connected to the Switch screen. Thankfully, if the tablet mode feels uncomfortable, Joy-Cons can be removed at will. The compact, lightweight remotes are perfect for extensive handheld play sessions.
Prior to the inclusion of the 10.0.0 system update, certain button and control layouts may have prohibited disabled players from enjoying the Switch. Yet, with the capability to customize most controls (apart from the “Home” and “Capture” buttons) the stress of not being able to reach or press inaccessible controls fades away. Additionally, with five presets for each Joy-Con, as well as the Pro Controller, disabled players can expand their libraries to previously unavailable titles.
For physically disabled individuals who lack the capability to grip items, the controllers can be used when resting on nearly any surface, lying in any position. (The trigger buttons on the bottom of the controller can be remapped, if needed, thanks to the 10.0.0 system update). This flexibility is also a good fit for those who are limited to one-handed gaming.
Each Switch also comes packaged with a Joy-Con Grip, to which the Joy-Cons can be attached to enable players to hold them as they would an Xbox or PlayStation controller. This option is smaller than the Xbox or PlayStation controllers, making the range of motion needed to navigate the device more manageable.
But beyond just what comes in the box, there is a range of controller options to choose from, complementing the overall flexibility and accessibility of the Switch. Nintendo offers a more standard-looking Pro Controller, for example.
For physically disabled individuals that continue to struggle with Nintendo’s controllers, further modifications may be necessary. Thankfully, artists and designers have produced controllers and adapters that can accommodate an array of physical disabilities.
The Single-Handed Joy-Con Adapter
In 2017, after a friend lost the use of his right arm and found himself unable to play Breath of the Wild, 3-D printing designer Julio Enrique Rito Vasquez created a specialized grip to aid one-handed Switch players. Vasquez’s accessory locks both Joy-Cons together, effectively enabling one-handed individuals to comfortably hold both remotes. Though the original design was fashioned for left-handed individuals, after the device’s initial launch, Vasquez designed a right-handed adapter as well. While not necessarily helpful for those with limited strength, Vasquez’s ingenuity provided a solution for a subsection of the physically disabled community.
Despite the plethora of play style options for Joy-Cons, disabled gamers may require outside assistance from third-party hardware. USB Adapters can help bridge the accessibility gap between systems.
The Switch does not have a licensed adaptive controller like Microsoft. But disabled players may still desire a controller with a different button layout, or an ergonomic feel that can rest within hands or be placed comfortably on a lap. By directly plugging USB adapters into Switch consoles, disabled individuals can connect either a PlayStation or Xbox controller through Bluetooth functionality.
However, it should be noted that the latest system update is not compatible with non-licensed Nintendo products. Still, with most adapters costing around $25, this is an affordable form of accessibility.
Clay/Rubber-Based Solutions and Velcro
If the above two suggestions are unattainable or simply don’t fit your situation, homemade crafts are an excellent way to improve the accessibility of the Switch. While the Joy-Cons are great portable devices, disabled players may struggle to press shallow buttons, namely “-,” “+” and “Home.” By artificially raising their height with clay or rubber solutions, disabled players can gain enough leverage to activate each button. Just be sure to properly research a specific product before purchasing it. If not handled properly, clay and rubber could permanently damage a Joy-Con. (For an inexpensive, easy to remove solution, I recommend utilizing Sugru, a flexible adhesive putty).
For a safer alternative, strips of Velcro can adhere Joy-Cons to a table or tray for stability. Since the Switch’s controllers are portable, disabled players can position each remote in ways that could benefit their physical limitations, as well as to assist with control schemes for varying titles. This is an inexpensive method of broadening the physical accessibility of many Switch games.
With the technical aspects of the Switch’s accessibility covered, disabled players are going to need to test these methods on games. Thankfully, the Switch includes several titles that feature incredible accessibility options.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
This iconic racing game can distract you and other quarantined loved ones for hours with colorful courses, wild items and familiar characters. But aside from just being entertaining, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe features two accessibility options that can level the playing field for disabled players. “Auto Accelerate” removes the necessity of holding “A” to gas your kart, enabling individuals to conserve precious energy for lengthy gaming sessions. “Smart Steering” keeps karts within the middle-of-the-road, preventing accidental off-road adventures. With these two modes activated, disabled individuals are only required to use items with “L,” allowing them to comfortably game with family and friends.
Pokémon Sword/Pokémon Shield
The exotic world of Pokémon made its Switch debut in 2019, bringing incredible innate accessibility: the games can be fully enjoyed with just a single finger. When controlling your trainer in the overworld, players are only required to utilize the left control stick, as well as “A” to speak with characters or interact with items. The menu is accessed through “X,” and bumpers serve no purpose. The turn-based nature of battles means that disabled gamers can take time to strategize or recover strength in their hands.
For individuals that desire more of a challenge than Pokémon Sword/Pokémon Shield, Octopath Traveler is an excellent substitute. Overworld movements and battles are largely identical to the latest Pokémon titles, apart from utilizing the “R” bumper on the top of the Joy-Con to boost the offensive and defensive capabilities of attacks. Moreover, the turn-based combat means that disabled players can take their time when casting abilities.
Kirby Star Allies
This charming cooperative title follows the adventures of Nintendo’s adorable pink ball. The assistance options from AI characters, or other players, is where Kirby Star Allies highlights its accessibility. Since controls are relegated to the left stick and face buttons, players need not worry about rapid, precise movements to execute actions. Plus, the AI companions are highly responsive — so much so, that villains sometimes fall before reaching the main character. The greatest accessibility obstacle comes in the form of navigating minor platforming sections.
While the Nintendo Switch is an excellent option for disabled gamers looking to purchase their first system, other consoles offer a range of accommodations as well.
With a bevy of systemwide accessibility options, including fully customizable controls and text-to-speech software, the PS4 can cater to a wide array of disabilities. Further, PlayStation exclusives such as God of War feature accessibility options of their own, enhancing the overall gaming experience for disabled players.
Xbox also features system-wide accessibility settings for its users. However, unlike PlayStation, Xbox sells a controller solely designed to benefit those with physical disabilities. The Xbox Adaptive Controller can combine with numerous switches and sticks to create a set up specific to individual players and their needs.
With a vast library, the Nintendo Switch contains a multitude of genres and franchises, which can be accessed by people with varying disabilities. While these tips and tricks were given from the perspective of a disabled gamer, please note that not every disability is the same. Ultimately, you’re going to know your limitations best and should utilize tools that allow you to play to your strengths.
Grant Stoner is a disabled writer who covers accessibility and disability acceptance within the video game industry. He is the Mobility Editor and co-owner of Can I Play That, and you can find his bylines in IGN and Launcher. Follow him on Twitter @Super_Crip1994.