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"Just because discrimination is illegal, doesn't mean it doesn't happen"

Writer, producer, and campaigner Felicia Prehn on building accessible games and inclusive teams

The games industry should lead by example when it comes to inclusivity and accessibility, according to producer, writer, and campaigner Felicia Prehn.

Disabled people are disproportionately unemployed and face employment discrimination at much higher levels than the general population said Prehn, who is legally blind. But the games industry "has the ability to make a really big difference in the world, in a way that other industries really can't."

The issue of accessibility has increasingly entered public discourse in recent months, with the debate around Sekiro: Shadow's Die Twice, and Microsoft's reveal of the Xbox Adaptive controller last year.

However, as Prehn noted, "just because discrimination is illegal, doesn't mean it doesn't happen." Laws alone are not enough, there needs to be societal change, and the games industry has a role it can play in that.

"There is an idea that if you are disabled, you are in constant need of help with every task that you do... But the reality is, every person alive has strengths and weaknesses"

"We as disabled people finally might have a real role for ourselves," she said during her talk at Develop:Brighton this week. "And the games industry, you, HR people, CEOs, people in power, you have the chance to actually change the world and actually change how people perceive us in the future. Because the more companies willing to openly recruit and openly include disabled people in their teams, the less of a stigma it becomes for other industries... [It] sends a message, and I think the important thing here that we have for so long been made to feel there is no place.

"This is something I dealt with a lot as a youngster. One of the reasons I never thought I would work in the games industry, because when I was younger I was told by adults in my life that my employment prospects were limited. That is something I've been told my entire life. I've never been told that I could be anything I wanted to be, the way my friends were."

As a sector so heavily reliant on computer-based work, the games industry is accessible for disabled people, noted Prehn. Furthermore, there's a constant demand for skilled workers that is often difficult to meet.

But beyond helping to tackle stigma, there are additional benefits from hiring people with disabilities. Notably, in helping to make more games with increased accessibility, whether that's colourblind mode, font sizes, mappable controller inputs, or sound design. Areas of accessibility are easily overlooked when no one on the team has had to think about them as part of their daily lives.

"There's a lot of examples out there of times where... not having an inclusive team came back to bite the company, and hurt the company someway," Prehn said. "That's not what anyone wants. No one wants to lose money, no one wants to look bad in the press.... Looking at examples where other companies have failed can help you not to fail."

This is especially important, Prehn noted, as some data suggests that one in five people who play games have a disability of one form or another that could affect their gaming experience. The "absolute minimum" developers should do is make use of free online resources or communities.

"When I was younger I was told by adults in my life that my employment prospects were limited. That is something I've been told my entire life"

"You have to have some sort of input from the disabled community because we want to help," she said. "Not to mention, when you let us help, we're going to tweet about it because most of us are not used to feeling included, or feeling appreciated, so when it happens, we get excited... We tell the world, and that's good publicity for you. You don't wanna be the company that forgot to do a thing and you're left behind."

In order for the games industry to lead by example, however, it needs to overcome its own biases and reservations around hiring people with disabilities. As Prehn said, disability is "not a black and white concept."

"There is an idea that if you are disabled, you are in constant need of help with every task that you do, and that there are no tasks -- or very few tasks -- that you can do without assistance from a supervisor or co-worker," Prehn continued. "But the reality is, every person alive has strengths and weaknesses. There is no single person that is perfect... Everyone else is flawed in someway and will experience situations where their skills and abilities have a limit."

Prehn highlighted a number of things the industry can do to be more forward facing in this respect. A less transparent hiring process may sound counter-intuitive, but Prehn suggested that information around an individual's disability to be held back from the application.

"I don't think disabled people should really tell in CVs and interviews... If you feel that someone might be disabled, I don't think it's in your best interests as an HR manager, as a hiring person, as a team member, to obsess over it... So being more inclusive in this sense to me, would be focusing specifically on the tasks that need to get done, and what the person applying to the job is bringing to the table."

"We need to be trusted: we are not going to lie to you, we are not going to tell you we can do things that we can't do"

Companies should also be more active in encouraging disabled people to apply, suggested Prehn, and offer the same amount of trust they would in anyone else.

"Oftentimes there are mental barriers for us," she said. "Should we apply? Do we stand a chance? Are we going to be taken seriously? Are they going to listen to us? Are they going to trust us? We know our limits.... so trust is a really important thing in this sense. We need to be trusted: we are not going to lie to you, we are not going to tell you we can do things that we can't do."

Finally, Prehn suggested that there should be more workshops, especially with people in charge of hiring, to help tackle prejudice and unconscious bias.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there about what it's like... I think when people see positive examples of something, it changes their mind and it can break the prejudice they might have about people with specific abilities," she said.

There are a number of resources for developers interested in improving accessibility in their games, or wanting to have a more inclusive team and hiring process.

"First hand understanding is always the best understanding," said Prehn. "If you want to make a game that is accessible, and if accessibility is something that your company values, then you have to consult a disabled person, and it can't just be a person with one specific kind of thing that they struggle with. It has to be several people sometimes, and it has to be over several occasions. I don't feel it's enough to just make one phone call, feel good about yourselves that you called, and then implement maybe one small thing and move on."

For more information, visit Game Accessibility Guidelines, r/disabledgamers, r/blind, Able Gamers, SpecialEffect, or simply search for "hiring disabled people".

GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for Develop:Brighton 2019 and attended with the help of the organisers

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