Part 2: Visual Impairment
[EDITORS NOTE: This is PART 2 of a multi-part series. Links to the other parts will be provided as they are updated. -dc]
Last week we talked the basics of making your game table accessible, and defined some terms. This week, we’re going to jump into some specifics, and for a couple of reasons we’re going to start with physical impairments. The first is that physical impairments are often easier for you to identify ahead of time, allowing you to get accommodations in place before you roll the first die. Secondly, our discussions about physical impairments will lay the groundwork for later articles on non-neurotypical accommodation, hopefully establishing some ways of thinking that will serve us in those articles.
So let’s talk about visual impairment. Based on the World Health Organization’s data, as of October 2017 there were an estimated 253 million people with some form of visual impairment, with 36 million of those considered blind and the rest with moderate to severe visual impairment. That number is down from the WHO’s 2010 estimates, which placed the total number of visually impaired at 285 million. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that over eighty percent of all visual impairment is both preventable and curable.
For our purposes the takeaway from the WHO’s data is that, while full blindness is at the extreme end, there is a broad range of visual impairment. As we discuss how best to accommodate visual impairment at the table, however, most of the options will focus on accommodating blindness, since many of these accommodations will be of benefit to players with less severe impairment.
Let’s talk about the game for second. Today and moving forward, our default role-playing game is going to be Dungeons & Dragons. The D&D player-base is one of the fastest growing right now, and it is the most likely first contact with the tabletop hobby for new players. Combine those two factors with a pretty even mix of visual (minis, maps and scenery, player handouts) and verbal (DM description, in-character talk) elements, and D&D makes a good baseline for our discussions. It should be easy for you to extrapolate our accommodations for use in your game.
So how can you accommodate a visually impaired player at your game? As we talked about in Part 1, your first step is to talk to them. Are they a veteran player or new to the hobby? If they’ve played for a while already, they may have come up with accommodations of their own and now your job is to mesh those with your table. But let’s assume they are new to the hobby and will require your help to get started. And let’s further assume you are starting from scratch. How can you accommodate the visual impaired player right now?
- Go back over your game notes with an eye to your descriptive text. Your visually impaired player is not going to get much, if anything, from your lovely map or terrain set-up, so you need to make sure your verbal description paints a picture for them. Take special care to include environmental details which are not sight-based. Is there a smell or smells in the encounter area? What sounds can be heard? Is it hot, cold, humid? You don’t have to go overboard, but make sure to touch on a few senses beyond sight. In addition make sure to read aloud, or have a player read aloud, any player handouts.
- If this is their first game, recommend they use a pre-gen so they can get right to playing. If they have a good time you can always meet again to help them roll up a character before next session. As you would with any new player, take some time to go over their character and explain the basics. If they feel they need/want it, ask one of your players to be available to answer questions, so they can get help without you having to take time out from running the game.
- Make sure they have a way to roll dice that allows them control of their rolling. Of course someone could roll dice for them and tell them the results. But that should be the absolute last resort. Rolling dice is such a part of the D&D experience, every effort should be made to make sure it’s a part of theirs. I recommend downloading a dice-rolling app to your phone for them to use. Many, such as Quick Dice Roller, have an audio feature which will read aloud the roll results. You can often pre-set some standard roll+modifiers, such as combat or skill use, which allows most die rolls to be just a single button click.
So your visually impaired player has played their first session and loved it! Great! Now that you have some time to prep for the next session, there are a few more things you can do to make their sessions more enjoyable.
- Get feedback from the players, not just the visually impaired player but the others as well. Find out what worked and what didn’t. Then double-down on the things which worked and find ways to improve or work around what didn’t. Maybe you need to vary your descriptive text, or find a better dice roller. Maybe the players need to make some changes, like cut down on cross-talk when the DM is talking. Post-game conversations are a crucial part of bringing a new player into your game at any time, but definitely need to happen now.
- Depending on the extent of their visual impairment, you can adjust how you prep materials for next session. Consider printing player handouts in a larger font size, in a font that is clear and easy to read, so your visually impaired player can enjoy the same handouts as the other players. If they read braille, consider having key campaign documents translated and printed in braille. Often you can access a service like this through your public library or at your local university. There are online services for translating a document into braille, but while I’m a big believer in using free online services whenever possible, you want to be absolutely sure the translation is clean. If you use one, make sure to have your printing service give it a read through first.
- If you don’t already use it, consider adding a sound or musical element to your game table. This doesn’t have to be overpowering, but can be used to indicate important moments in an encounter and add to the atmosphere for all players. Consider: usually you might introduce the Big Bad with a stunning miniature reveal. That’s cool, but if you add a musical or sound effects tag to that, so there is now a sound associated with the Big Bad, you’ve now added an extra layer to the encounter while allowing the visually impaired player a way to share in the moment.
So those are some things you can do, short and long term, to make your game accessible to the visually impaired. But what about the tabletop industry? Is anyone out there doing anything to make their games more accessible?
The DOTS RPG Project has created a set of braille dice, to allow braille readers the same enjoyment of rolling physical dice which is a huge part of the hobby. Each die is about 3 inches in diameter, made of lightweight material, and easily readable. As well, they are setting themselves up to print braille versions of RPG books, and have begun approaching the major publishers about this initiative. I’m hoping the major publishers will come on board; frankly this is long overdue in the industry.
Beyond that, the game industry has not really made efforts to accommodate the visually impaired. Companies like Syrinscape have developed wonderful audio sets for use at the table, and while those will certainly enhance the experience of visually impaired players, they weren’t created with those players in mind. A friend of mine, Mike, has long made the point that the game industry is missing a huge opportunity by not publishing audiobook versions of their rules, and I agree. While braille books are certainly useful for players who can read braille, they may not be widely useful to all visually impaired players. And given the number of actors, specifically voice actors, currently involved in the resurgence of tabletop games, I’m really surprised Wizards of the Coast or Paizo haven’t already taken steps to publish audiobooks.
What do you think? Does the industry need to do more, and what do you think that should be? Have you gamed with visually impaired players, and what has that meant to your experience? Did I miss something that you do at your table? I’d love to get your comments and feedback below.
Next time, we’ll look at ways to make your gaming table more accessible to the hearing impaired, and what sort of resources are available to help.