Special Effect interview: Apps and hardware changing lives

Yesterday I tested an innovative new Android application named “Twilight” which changes the brightness of your screen dependant on the time of day, slowly adding a soft red filter until night-time to remove the blue light which keeps you awake.

As someone who regularly struggles to sleep; this morning I wanted to write a piece on how it could potentially “change my life” before realising how in the scheme of things, it’s so very insignificant.

There are apps and hardware out there which literally allow people to live their lives, and Dr. Mick Donegan from the charity “Special Effect” is part of one of the incredible teams I’ve had the privilege to interview which help the disabled enjoy one of my favourite hobbies - video games.

Gaming for many people is the escapism from the rat-race; getting lost in another world, or being the superhero we all strive to be (right?) but for the disabled, it can be escape from suffering.

For children, many schools these days are equipped with fantastic assistive technology. Generally expensive, these innovations allow access to interactive experiences. Yet as Donegan told me, parents would say to him: “That’s great, but what will they do when they get home?”


In many cases the disabled can be confined to their bedrooms; unable to socialise by conventional means. Most games add in online-multiplayer functionality almost as standard these days, enabling contact and forming/maintaining friendships otherwise unreachable.

Gaming is a huge industry; every year you’ll find me at Eurogamer Expo and similar events getting hands-on with the latest titles on offer.

Donegan points out it’s not just people born with; or have developing disabilities his team work with, but also injured personnel returning from the army enabling them to carry on playing games they love.

When you get to use some of the specially-adapted equipment you realise how incredible these people are; they are pushing boundaries for the entire sector.

From their technology, I’ve driven a rally car using just my eyes; I’ve played Portal using just my chin.

So how does Special Effect run? Dr Mick explains: “We’ll go out and do an assessment. They’re welcome to come to us, or if they’re in hospital or stuck at home; we’ll go to them.”

He carries on explaining how his team works: “We’re a specialised team; my background is in education. But we have therapists, designers, developers; we’ll come up with a solution.”

On the challenge he goes on to say: “We’ll do what we can, each person is a project basically, and they are the ones who decide if we are successful or not.”

Magnificent projects, take less-than-magnificent amounts of money. Luckily there are incredible people out there willing to help fund this life-changing project.

When I asked about how Special Effect raises such amounts, and whether any government grants help them, Donegan says: “There is no statutory funding for the work we do. It’s why no-one has done it before, which is understandable,” adding: “Whilst grants are available specifically for health, or for education, it’s not widely understood how important games are.”

Dr. Mick and his Special Effect team wish to promote the importance of video games for health, education, and generally improving the quality of lives. One of the apps which prove the importance of interactive experiences is ‘Grace’ – App for Autism.

Born from the mind of Lisa Domican, an Australian mother who has two autistic children, the app replaces the need for Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS).

Even though this sounds IT-orientated; it’s actually just pictures. The individual passes or points to these cards when they require something; whilst saying the object to help speech development.

As her daughter, Grace, built over 400 pictures in her book it became cumbersome. Teaming up with a 20yr old Irish iPhone developer all the pictures were not only transferred into the app under quickly-accessed headings, but also featured the ability to take your own pictures.

So whilst ‘Twilight’ may only help me to sleep a little easier at night... Special Effect helps individuals lead a better quality life, and ‘Grace’ helps people with autism find their voice.

Please check out Special Effect and donate or fundraise where you can.

What do you think about the combination of software and hardware changing lives? Do you have any of your own stories or experiences to share?

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