Ken Yankelevitz - 30 Years of Enabling Disabled Gamers


Ken Yankelevitz is one of the pioneers of accessible gaming, having started back in 1981 when Atari approached him seeking help for a disabled teenager. He is rightly being celebrated for 30 years of fantastic service to the cause. Bravo!

To add to this tribute, I've cribbed the following interview with Ken from Peter A McWiliams' 1984 book "Personal Computers and the Disabled"...


Ken Yankelevitz is a flight simulation engineer for McDonnell Douglas. In his spare time he makes joysticks for the disabled. But aren't joysticks for playing games? Do disabled people want to use computers to play games? As Ken explains, "Disabled people are just like everybody else - especially kids."

And kids seem to be Ken's speciality. Although disabled adults appreciate the opportunity to play Pac Man or chess or Decathlon, Ken seems to take special delight in helping disabled children control the hopping Qbert, or walking with Big Bird down Sesame Street.

Ken works regularly with the younger members of the Rancho Las Amigos rehabilitation center in Downey, California. "Some of them use the same type device as the game controller to operate their wheelchairs," Ken explains. "Playing games teaches them accuracy and coordination, which they can use in steering the chairs. It can also be good exercise." So, there are practical benefits to game playing. "Sure," say Ken, "but mostly it's just fun." It's also fun to watch disabled youngsters trounce able-bodied friends at video games.

Ken's controllers are designed for use with movements of either the hand, head, mouth, foot or tongue. They attach to Atari, Sears, and ColecoVision video games, and to Atari 400/800 and Commodore VIC-20 computers.

Trying to get game controller devices for his quadriplegic friends proved impossible, so Ken invented some. He demonstrated them to Atari. They were not interested in marketing them, but anytime a disabled person called Atari looking for a special joystick, Atari gave them Ken's name.

He formed KY (Ken Yankelevitz) Enterprises in Long Beach, California. Yet to show a profit (Ken's special controllers are generally less expensive than regular mass-produced joysticks), Ken refers to the entire activity as, "An expensive hobby." His wife, Diane, takes part in the family hobby, too.

The controllers can, of course, be used for more than playing games. ("More" implies that game playing is lowly and other computer activities are not. This is not my intent. Recreation, it seems to me, is as valuable as creation. Let's say that controllers can be used for purposes other than playing games.)

Many educational programs use the joystick as an interactive device - selecting letters, numbers, pictures and so on. The controller can be used as a cursor movement device. The keyboard can be used - perhaps with a mouth stick - to enter information, and the mouth-activated controller for zipping about the file while editing.  The controller becomes a sort of mouth mouse.

One of the exciting things about the mouth controllers is how inexpensively an education/communication/game system can be assembled for a disabled person. Video games or VIC-20 computers cost about $100, and the less expensive Atari runs $200 or so. Add one of Ken's controllers ($20 to $65), buy a few cartridges, hook it up to any television, and it's set to go. $120 to $265 may seem like a lot to some budgets - especially considering the other financial obligations disabilities bring - but such a configuration offers a great deal of fun and learning for a price lower than most people think a computer especially adapted for a disabled person might cost.

Were I writing this as a feature piece for a local newscast, I might end it with something syrupy like: "Ken Yankelevitz helps simulate flight for grown-ups during the day, so that he can stimulate flights of fancy for young people at night."

Fortunately for us all, this is not a TV news feature. I can close this piece by simply saying, Good work, Ken. Film at eleven.

Read more at Yahoo News, and found via Hack-a-Day.

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1 Responses to 'Ken Yankelevitz - 30 Years of Enabling Disabled Gamers'

  1. # Blogger OneSwitch.org.uk

    Interesting post here too with video interview of Ken: http://www.abcmontana.com/sports/local/Video-Gaming-for-Quadriplegics-122458094.html -

    Although I am surprised he's never heard of Broadened Horizons / Gimp Gear - who have been doing similar stuff for years.  

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