A century ago there wasn't much life available for quadriplegic people. Handicap accessibility was barely even a concept, and lacking medical technology kept any semblance of independence out of reach. Today those unfortunate enough to be paralyzed from the neck down have brighter prospects, but are still unable to participate in many activities. Video games are a great option for those who do not have the use of their legs, but for quadriplegics, the use of a standard controller is not an option, depriving them of what might be the best-suited means of recreation.
For 30 years, Ken Yankelevitz has worked largely alone in Bozeman, Montana to change that. His work has vastly improved the lives of hundreds of people, but has never been embraced by the gaming industry at large. Now, as he ages, his life's work is threatening to disappear.
Yankelevitz got his start in games making flight simulators for one time aviation giant McDonnell Douglas. In 1981, Atari approached him about designing a controller that would allow a depressed quadriplegic teen from Pennsylvania to play the Atari 2600 console. He accepted, and found himself working on the project at the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center outside Los Angeles with paralyzed former world volleyball star Kirk Kilgour.
Kilgour desperately needed to get his competition fix, so together he and Yankelevitz created the first of many QuadControl (as they were later deemed) controllers. Like subsequent models, it places most of the controls in the player's mouth, requiring them to tilt their heads, sip, puff, and tongue-press different locations on the controller to control games. Each unit is custom-made to suit the condition of the customer, so those with partial use of their hands can have those controls integrated as well.
The controllers became beloved and effective rehabilitation tools for strengthening the neck and mouth muscles, among the only muscles still functional for quadriplegic patients. Yankelevitz must have found all of this satisfying, for the following year he started KY Enterprises and began producing QuadControl controllers made-to-order. In the intervening 30 years, he has sold more than 800 units to grateful customers, while also performing all repairs on them. His controllers cost barely enough to cover parts, running around $225 for the Playstation 2/3 model and $260 for the XBox 360.
Reviews of these models have been mixed; dual thumbstick controls are tough to replicate in the mouth. This makes it nearly impossible for players to use both sticks at the same time—a crucial feature of many modern action games (see the kid playing Call of Duty below). The controllers may be more cumbersome than their two-handed cousins, but for someone with few other recreational options, that can still be a godsend. One customer on QuadControl's website pointed out that the controller can be used as a TV remote as well, opening up further entertainment independence for users.
Unfortunately, the small scale that allowed Yankelevitz to keep his prices low and customer service excellent may have proven to be the death of his work. He has been making the controllers from scratch for decades with no formal assistant or apprentice. No one knows the intricacies of what he is doing, and he is but one aging man. Recently, Yankelevitz stopped taking orders for new units or repairs during the winter—a full six months—depriving customers with broken units of what for many of them is a full-time pursuit for months at a time.
No large game company is likely to carry the torch for him. Even though Atari inspired his initial work, console makers like Nintendo and Sony have expressed no interest in mass producing it. 800 customers in 30 years is not enough volume to justify a large scale factory operation. There are no other companies or people producing similar quality units at a similar price. Yankelevitz himself has said that producing his controllers in a factory setting would drive costs up to $1000 per unit, four times what he sells them for now. As he enters his '70s, dark clouds are gathering. It makes me wish I had a great deal of experience with electronics and much steadier hands.