It's a new year, and the ADA Amendments Act is now in effect. These Amendments are a response to the Supreme Court's erosion of protections and rights in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 over the years (see Sutton et. al vs. United Air Lines, Inc, Murphy vs. United Parcel Service, Inc.. The Supreme Court argued that, if a person's condition is controlled with "mitigating measures"—medication for high blood pressure, for instance—the person does not have a disability…even if that person is fired or otherwise discriminated against because of their condition).

The Amendments spell out just what "disability" means, but what's most interesting is the wide variety of things the act defines as "major life activities". They "include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working." They also involve "the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions."

What do these specifications mean for gamers? As Suzanne Robitaille writes in For the Disabled, More Power for Play, the Amendments "will also clarify that a major life activity doesn't just include work. The act expands this definition to include communicating, reading, and other activities of central importance — such as plain old fun."

While the ADA Amendments Act doesn't specify play as a major life activity, its recognition that life is about more than working, going to school and taking care of oneself excites me. Not because I want to see more people punished, but because, as autistic advocate Joel Smith puts it, access is about privileges as well as rights:

[A] school needs to be inclusive…well, inclusive for basic education anyhow. But often [school administrations] don’t see the need for inclusion in advanced academic programs, specialized vocational programs, sports, or other areas. Nobody has the 'right' to play basketball, after all – or at least that seems to be what is communicated.

The ethical basis of inclusion, however, isn’t dependent upon whether some activity is a basic 'right' or a 'privilege'. Inclusion is for all activities (and all organizations, even ones that see themselves as providing something other than a 'right'). No, I’m not saying that someone who lacks basketball talent should be allowed to play varsity high school basketball – of course not. But someone that has talent should be able to. Even if accommodation is needed.

Here's hoping that the ADA Amendments Act is a harbinger of more resources, ideas and options for making games accessible in 2009.

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk grew up in a small Nebraska town called Papillion. Although she has a nonverbal learning disability that affects her visual-spatial skills (among other things), she's always loved video games. Her first game system was a Commodore Vic-20, which her mom bought at a garage sale for $20. With this little computer Tera learned to write Mad Libs in BASIC, to play chess and to steal gold from Fort Knox.

But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).

Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at
Tera Kirk

Latest posts by Tera Kirk (see all)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Michelle Hinn
12 years ago

Tera — this is going to be quoted by me at this year’s GDC (all props to you of course!). Nice work!

Brad Gallaway
Brad Gallaway
12 years ago

Excellent post, Tera. I work with the ADA everyday, but I must admit I hadn’t considered it in relation to games… very interesting, indeed. considering that the government is going to the extreme of trying to have every used toy and piece of clothing scanned for lead before resale (absurdly extreme, IMO), i wonder what lengths they will go to for accomodations in this regard.