Peer Counseling

Looking Ahead in 2022

A royal blue roundish blob background small orange circles on top and on top of that a photo of a little boy laughing in a red t-shirt playing a video game using an adaptive controller while his little brother looks on

It Was Always About Social Isolation.

Long before AbleGamers was an organization with a mission to combat social isolation, it was a thought. A passionate belief and drive for equality through the access of resources, by our founder, Mark Barlet. As a Service-Disabled Veteran, Mark has a deep and personal understanding of barriers to care and the potential emotional and physiological pitfalls of social isolation.

In an attempt to stay linked with close real-life friends across the country, Mark and his friends would virtually connect by playing Everquest weekly. This was a routine that they shared to stay actively engaged in each other’s lives. However, one Friday evening in the fall of 2004. His friends failed to join.

As Mark soon discovered, his friend’s disability and symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis had exacerbated to the point that it had rendered her unable to join. The activity that they all looked forward to every week was not going to happen. In an endeavor to help his friend, he began searching for resources to assist her. At the time, he was sure that he would discover numerous resources that he would be able to identify for her; instead, he found an ocean of needs with few if any resources. What Mark was truly doing was searching for resources and ways to lessen social isolation for his friend. In essence, living what would become AbleGamers mission. This was the revelation. This revelation would eventually lead to the creation of AbleGamers.

On 8/23/2004, the AbleGamers website was registered. The original intent was to provide a platform where disabled players could connect with each other and share essentially needed resources. At the time it was our belief that connecting players was the catalyst needed so that individuals could share resources with one another.  Over the years, AbleGamers continually reviewed the landscape and found that the central issue was not that resources were hard to find, but rather that they simply did not exist. So, in 2009, with a $5000 donation, from Alex Rigopulos, AbleGamers Foundation was created.

Over the years AbleGamers has sought to fight social isolation through facilitating gaming. Over those years we found that what we had conceptualized as an ice cube of needs in an ocean of resources and opportunity has turned out to be an iceberg in breadth and depth of complexity. What we once saw as a two-prong approach; removing physical barriers to play and engaging with programmers to provide more accessibility options in games (i.e., peer counseling and APX training). It has now developed into a complex web of correlated needs.

Where We Were

The AbleGamers Peer Counseling program was designed to explore if equipment accessibility hurdles stop the player from exploring the amazing worlds, stories, and experiences created in video games. The end goal was to provide custom equipment and hardware to people with disabilities to assist in the critical first step to including them as players and connecting them to people in video gaming communities around the world. Since its inception, the peer-counseling program has been overwhelmed. While we knew that there was a need for such a program, we did not anticipate that the need would run as deep as it has or that individuals would be as eager to reach out for this resource as they have. While we knew that there was a need, we couldn’t comprehend the depth of that need (at least not then). It was as if we trying to dig a hole in the sand. Any progress was lost because the sand kept refilling that hole. With every one person we helped, 10 more would reach out for assistance.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic brought with it massive shutdowns and forced social isolation to a population who had never experienced isolation of the psychological consequences to that isolation. As horrendous as the pandemic and its impact has been for the world, it has also provided a small insight into what the population we serve has experienced. However, unlike those who eagerly await “returning to normal” and re-engaging with others, the individuals we serve will continue to have barriers to overcoming social isolation even after the pandemic subsides. This is a critical point that should elicit not only compassion, but also a drive to help individuals who have been “locked-in” by barriers to care, and barriers to social engagement. Barriers created and endorsed by a biased view of disabled individuals. As a society, we seem to be ok if individuals are marginalized as long as they are out of sight with no end in sight. We must address these barriers in a national discussion, which we intend to lead.

The pandemic has provided a greater understanding of social isolation by those who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand what that entailed. It has also provided us as an organization with time to pause and take additional steps to engage those that we serve in a more holistic manner. While the Peer Counseling team could have simply been increased to meet the waiting list of those requesting our assistance, we came to the understanding that to truly combat social isolation we needed to address barriers of engagement with a continuum engagement model. This means increasing the peer counseling program’s capacity, addressing the psycho-emotional well-being, community, and peer mentor engagement components.  As well as increasing the number of AG teammates (doubling in size in 2021) and resources to build much-needed capacity.

Where We are Going

The original driver that led Mark to seek to empower his friend through finding and allocating resources remains central to AbleGamers now. However, the challenge that we face as we engage individuals globally is infrastructural development, growth and the modification of our programmatic engagement model to address needs in a more holistic and research-validated manner.

The realization that our work is not only life-changing but life-saving as well, led to a reconceptualization of how we pursue our mission. For several months we have been finalizing our plans to develop and expand the infrastructure to meet our members’ needs in a continual and holistic manner. We are now beginning the application component to test our new empowerment model. Through connecting, engaging, and empowerment we hope to foster a more resilient generation of disabled players. As we move to this new period for AbleGamers, we realize that the requests for services continue to come in and add to the waitlist. While it is not our intention to increase the wait time for engaging those requests, we understand that it is an unfortunate byproduct of restructuring and enhancing our engagement model.

As we employ our new model to connect, engage and empower gamers and double the size of our team. We ask that you be patient with us as we restructure to better meet your needs. We are reaching out to individuals on our substantial waitlist. Be assured that we are here for you. Our mission is to assist you in overcoming social isolation and we wholeheartedly believe that this new model allows us to do that in a more effective and lasting way.