Plymouth man works to help fellow gamers with disabilities

Joshua Straub of Plymouth formed DAGERS in 2012 with a mission to ensure game accessibility for people with disabilities. Recently honored for his work, Straub is using money from his award to expand his business. This includes updating the DAGERS website (shown on the monitor). (Sun Sailor photo by Derek Bartos)

For Joshua Straub of Plymouth, video games are a way to escape.

“I love these big open-world games where I can run around as a dwarf or an elf or a knight,” said Straub, who was born with cerebral palsy. “In the game, I’m not confined by my chair. I’m not reliant on another person. My life is not easy, and this is one of the ways I get through it. I’m able to use these games to forget about it for a brief window.”

For more than two years, Straub has been helping fellow gamers with disabilities by providing reviews on the accessibility of specific games and articles that address larger issues.

Now, thanks to assistance from an award he received late last year, the Plymouth man has entered the second phase of his business — contracting with video game manufacturers to test products for accessibility.

“I hope through my work, it becomes possible for more people to escape the pains of their disability, even for a small time,” he said.

Straub began his efforts as a result of his work for his final project as a student at Southwest Minnesota State University. Drawing on his own experiences, he wrote a paper on the medical benefits of gaming for people with disabilities.

“From that, I realized that there were a lot of people like me who are disabled and enjoy games, but there was no awareness in the game industry about the needs of disabled people,” he said.

Before graduating with his degree in creative writing and history, Straub received the chance to try out his mission as an intern for “GameInformer” magazine. He wrote numerous articles on gaming accessibility, why it matters and what developers can do to make games more accessible.

“The response from that was so overwhelming, that it encouraged me to start my business,” he said.

In August 2012, Straub formed DAGERS (which stands for Disabled Accessibility for Gaming Entertainment Rating System). It was originally created as a service for disabled video gamers that would provide them with information to help determine whether a game was accessible to their particular needs prior to purchasing it. Articles also covered broader issues about accessibility.

“It started out just trying to be a news and review outlet for the game industry,” Straub said.

The DAGERS rating system looks at three broad areas of disability — auditory, visual and fine-motor. The business also hopes to expand its coverage into cognitive and ambulatory disabilities as the website grows.

The rating system breaks down into four categories — inaccessible, partially accessible, thoroughly accessible and barrier free. Barrier free is the highest rating and means a player’s disability will not require him or her to seek help from another player.

With the goal of writing at least three reviews each month, Straub has created more than 100 articles to date for the site. Contributions also come from DAGERS news editor Megan Hammond, features editor Jeremy Peeples and contributor Robert Kingett.

“People have been very receptive,” Straub said about feedback he has received from his readers. “I average between 50 and 60 hits a day now on the website. Of course, if you compare it to a site like Amazon, it’s not very much, but we’re slowly growing. Two years ago, I was lucky to get three hits a day.”

In recognition of his work, Straub was honored with the Judd Jacobson Memorial Award last November.

Established in 1992, the award recognizes pursuit or achievement of a business entrepreneurial endeavor by a person with a physical disability or sensory impairment. The recipient receives a special plaque and $5,000 administered by the Courage Kenny Foundation.

The Courage Kenny Foundation raises funds to support patients and clients of the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, which was formed in 2013 by the merger of Courage Center and Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, part of Allina Health.

Straub said he was honored to receive the award.

“I hope what I’m doing makes a difference,” he said.

Straub said the award’s funds will help him as he enters the next phase of his business, as he needs to travel for networking opportunities and to connect with game developers interested in his services. He is already off to a good start, he said, as two major companies have already requested his services.

“I’ve been getting contracts from developers to consult on their games, play them before they are released and tell them what they need to do to change them and make them more accessible,” he said.

While his efforts may lead to changes in the industry, Straub said that he doesn’t consider himself an advocate.

“I’m not trying to enforce standards of accessibility on the game industry,” he said. “I consider myself an educator because I try to show game developers that, through making their games more accessible, they make more money.”

While Straub’s latest efforts are focusing on a much larger scale, he said he will still continue his work where it started — on his website (dagersystem.com). He said to look for a new and improved site to be rolled out by March.

“I’m still going to be doing reviews,” he said. “I look at the journalism side of what I’m doing as a free public resource. It doesn’t matter if two people are reading it or two hundred people are reading it. If I help the two people that read it, I feel like I’ve done my job.”

Contact Derek Bartos at derek.bartos@ecm-inc.com

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