Invention helps pupils with special needs stay in the game


Computer games are getting more sophisticated, but little is being done to adapt them to youngsters with a mental or physical limitations. A KU Leuven graduate decided to do something about it

Making technology accessible

Children and youngsters who are mentally or physically disabled get special care at Windekind, a Leuven-based multifunctional centre that includes a number of special schools. Obviously, the centre tries to provide its pupils with the best care. But good care is not always enough.

As technologies such as social media, apps and gadgets advance rapidly, only a very limited amount of the innovation reaches this part of society, which could benefit so much from its applications. This is why Cera, a Flemish co-operative partnership that invests in welfare projects, set up its annual awards in 2011; some readers might remember that the former CERA bank was absorbed by KBC.

The Cera Award is meant to encourage social profit organisations that have used technological innovation as a tool to improve their overall functioning. The slogan of the awards reads “Technological innovation in social profit: it is possible!”

To emphasise the bottom-up aspect of technological innovation, the Cera Awards are meant for secondary school pupils who have worked on a socially orientated project during the past academic year. For the year 2013-14, Cera rewarded 11 pupils, among them Gerrit Andreo y Sanchez.

The University of Leuven student graduated in industrial sciences last summer. His Master’s thesis involved the project for which he was given the Cera award: the design and development of an electronic music game for children with multiple limitations.

Meeting pupils’ needs

From the start, Andreo y Sanchez worked with the teachers and caretakers at Windekind to learn about its pupils’ exact needs and how he could steer his project based on this information. 

These people are excluded from taking part in often exciting and instructive games

- Gerrit Andreo y Sanchez

“Computer games are very popular among teenagers and young adults,” he says. “But most of these games are not suitable for people with a mental or physical limitation. So sadly enough, these people are excluded from participating in often exciting and instructive games. My goal was to develop a computer game specially adapted to the youngsters at Windekind.”

Andreo y Sanchez worked with pupils aged between 13 and 17. “All of them have multiple limitations, which means they are both mentally and physically disabled,” says Anne Gelin, a paramedic at Windekind. “These limitations can be very different. It’s our goal to guide our pupils towards an optimal ability to manage for themselves, to prepare them for an adult life in a protected environment. Technology can play a really important role in their autonomy.”

What particular type of computer game Andreo y Sanchez would have to develop was not clear until he had immersed himself in daily life at Windekind. He attended classes, spoke to the pupils and even joined in G-badminton, the Special Olympics version of badminton. In this way, he learned what the group’s overall interest was and to what particular level he had to make technological adjustments to overcome their limitations.

Easy to control

Armed with all this information, Andreo y Sanchez started designing and building an entirely new electronic music game. In the game, the player taps a series of buttons to get into the rhythm of a song. As long as the player follows the rhythm more or less correctly, he or she stays in the game. 

It’s our goal to guide our pupils towards an optimal ability to manage for themselves

- Anne Gelin

Andreo y Sanchez also designed an animation that moves synchronously with the music, which supports hand-eye co-ordination. After observing the first gaming sessions, he decided to incorporate a picture of the actual player on the screen. 

“They really liked this,” he says. And they really liked the game, Gelin confirms. “This is mainly due to the musical element and the fact that it’s so easy to control.”

Now Andreo y Sanchez is gone – he has found a job in the computer industry – the pupils at Windekind still use the game he invented especially for them.

And there’s more, Gelin says. “We are thinking of using the control panel Gerrit developed for other computer applications because a regular keyboard and mouse are not suitable for our pupils.”

Windekind won Cera’s Organisation Award, given to a social profit organisation that is an example to the sector in terms of technological innovation.

Photo: University of Leuven graduate Gerrit Andreo y Sanchez with Anne Gelin of Windekind