How the Xbox Adaptive Controller will change the lives of millions of players with disabilities on PC

Back in the late 90s, Ultima Online was one of the hottest games on PC, an online game like I'd never played before: it was a place where I could create another life. As someone with a profound disability, I was destined to fall in love with MMOs on PC. These persistent online worlds gave me a chance to experience an existence where I wasn’t held back by a body that wouldn’t listen to my commands. Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), the disease which eliminates my physical abilities over time, started making Ultima Online harder to play. I began using a dental tool to reach keys on the keyboard that I couldn’t reach with my fingers, and eventually resorted to using two hands to move my mouse.

Those were some scary times. I didn’t know if technology would keep up with how quickly I was losing abilities or if the technology that would allow me to continue experiencing life through the lens of virtual worlds would ever exist . But if you can’t use a keyboard and you can barely use a mouse, how do you play games on PC?

Long ago you didn't have many options. You’d have to repurpose random household objects or use a lot of Velcro and tape to position things perfectly. Alternatively, a few people started hacking together controllers in their spare time. After a while, charities like AbleGamers, which I now work for, came along that would create special controllers for players with disabilities on a case-by-case basis. But none of those options could really compare to the ability to go to your local Walmart and pick up a different controller. 

People who need specialized switches will often already have them in their home and be able to swap them from other assistive technology devices as easily as moving a keyboard from one computer to another.

Microsoft is changing that by creating the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC). It's a new gamepad that features 19 3.5mm input jacks which you can plug all sorts of add-ons into. They're industry standard, so players will be able to purchase a variety of switches to fit their needs. Like a gumball switch which looks like the big red Staples "Easy" button, or a light touch switch that can be activated with pressure as light as a feather. There are also two USB ports for specialty joysticks, and the XAC comes with three custom profiles to enable switching between control setups for your favorite games quickly and easily.

Because the XAC emulates a standard Xbox controller, Windows will automatically recognize it. Gamers with disabilities will be able to plug in a joystick, flight stick or custom-made controller like the QuadStick, which is a device that you can operate with your mouth, without any additional hassle. People who need specialized switches will often already have them in their home and be able to swap them from other assistive technology devices as easily as moving a keyboard from one computer to another.

There are also two large programmable buttons with very light resistance for those who have strength difficulties. And because the controller is mostly flat, unlike the curved design of most gamepads, you can put it on the ground and use your feet to push its buttons.

I’ve had the distinct honor of helping create this controller over the last three years. Seeing every prototype and iteration of the design has given me a unique perspective on the entire process. Being able to take the switches I would use for any other piece of assistive technology, plug them into the XAC, and start gaming is simply a delight.

It was extremely common before this controller to have to explain a very technological process to people who don’t necessarily use or understand gaming technology. You would have to plug in a CronusMax converter and make sure it had the right readout, then program the buttons, and recharge the device every couple of hours. There were always barriers. The accessibility team at Microsoft understood that the person using the device and the person setting up the device may have very different levels of experience and knowledge when it comes to technology.

For $99, players with disabilities will be able to purchase the base model of the new Xbox controller. That's a bit more than most gamepads, but in perspective, it's incredible. Similar devices sold by assistive technology companies cost an outrageous $1200 or more. Let’s be honest: almost nobody has a few thousand dollars just lying around.

It’s a little like finding a unicorn hugging a leprechaun.

My own charity, AbleGamers, designed a controller called the Adroit to provide a cheaper alternative, but our hardware maker couldn’t reduce the price below $400. Each device had to be made by hand, and the off-the-shelf components of the controller cost nearly what Evil Controllers sells the device for. It would take an entire day or more to make each unit. 

A device specifically designed for the disability community costing $100 adds enormous affordability to its accessibility. It’s a little like finding a unicorn hugging a leprechaun. Once a device is labeled medically necessary, its price jumps. In our line of work, we call this a “disability tax." So for people with disabilities, being able to go to a local Microsoft store and pick up a controller designed with this kind of flexibility was a dream. Now that it's a reality, there's no need to wait for someone to hack a controller for you, and even better, no price gouging.

What does the new device mean?

It means increased freedom and quality of life. It’s the evolution of technology in an area few game companies have invested time and money. While this won’t allow every single person with a disability to play a PC game without any additional help, the XAC will make getting people with disabilities back into the game a lot easier for organizations like mine.

Steve Spohn is the Chief Operations Officer of AbleGamers charity, award-winning author, and advocate for people with disabilities. Featured on CNN, NBC and more, Steven brings all his knowledge to championing for people with disabilities in the video game space as a means of defeating social isolation. When not writing or doing charity work, you can find him gaming, reading the latest sci-fi novels or cracking jokes on social media— @StevenSpohn. You can read more of his work, including his viral post ‘Your Last Good Day’ on his website.  He currently resides outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his adorable living cotton ball of a cat and sheltie puppy.