Dealing with Disabled Players

Posted in NEWS on April 27, 2009

By Wizards of the Coast

Disability laws are a topic of constant discussion in today's media. In this article, I will talk you through some educational principles in dealing with disabled players at your tournaments. I'll deal both with general philosophy and specific pointers for dealing with particular disabilities. There'll also be some lessons on how to improve your tournaments for all your players by considering specific needs through the lens of disability.

This article is balanced between tournament organiser and judge concerns because in my experience there's rarely a 100% separation of duties between the two.

General Principles

There are three key rules when considering how to incorporate a disabled player into your event:

  • A disabled player is a player first, and disabled strictly second. He is there to play the game and have fun the same as any other player. Treat him as such. Furthermore, if he is travelling with a friend, that doesn't mean you can ignore that player and address all of your questions to the friend. This is a sadly common reaction of people who are not used to speaking to disabled people. It's understandable, but not acceptable.
  • Disabilities provide inhibitors to a person's access to certain activities. Magic is no exception - but almost all of these can be overcome by working with the player. If you don't know how to deal with a particular issue, talk to the player about it. You are not going to offend him by asking how you can help.
  • Thirdly, the tournament comes first. If the player isn't willing or able to accommodate the needs of the larger event, or he is significantly disabled and has not warned someone that he might be coming, it may be that you cannot make allowances for him on this occasion. Employ your best "table manner" and explain what the player can do to help you to work with him in future.

Specific Conditions

Here are a few tips for dealing with particular types of disability. Remember that what has worked for other judges and TOs in the past is an excellent guideline for the future, but it can't be relied upon to be entirely accurate and that there is no substitute for talking to your players! If you come up with something new that works, please post it in the discussion thread for this article.

Mobility impairments

Nature: The player isn't totally mobile. He may use a wheelchair, a cane, crutches, or nothing at all.

Problems: Moving between tables every round for matches is very hard for this player. It might be slow and painful.

Resolution: Thankfully, the DCI Reporter software includes a feature to deal with this. Fixed Seating, accessible from the Perform menu, allows you to anchor a particular player to a particular table number. This way, no matter how he's doing in the tournament, he'll always be in the same place. Pick a table that it easy for him to get to and from - ask the player where suits him. Try to avoid the highest table numbers, as spectators tend to crowd these. Don't pick a table that'll fall out of use quickly as players drop from the event.

Lessons: This is an incredibly simple thing to do on DCI Reporter 3. Remember that it has other uses. Perhaps a player has a young child and doesn't want to have to wander around the room.

Hearing impairments

Nature: The player has lessened or no hearing.

Problems: Communication with opponents is stymied. Announcements of round time, the head judge's speech, and other details may pass him by.

Resolution: A hearing-impaired player will be used to dealing with communication issues. He will probably be a good lip reader. The start of the round won't be hard to notice as everyone will suddenly start milling around, checking pairings, and so on. You may be surprised by how much of a Magic game you can play without needing to talk about it. Try playing a silent game sometime to see what I mean.

For round time, this is as simple as printing out a sign saying "ROUND ENDS" and then another sign with the time for the current round. Consider if you could itemise the key items for your HJ speech and print them out beforehand. If you're in a larger venue and using a PA system, consider asking the venue staff if they may have support available for induction hearing loops. These will beam your announcements clearly to any players with the appropriate hearing aids or receivers, so you know they've got all the information you need to give.

Lessons: Having a sign with the end of the current round time on it is useful for all players. Beware of being too reliant on it, though - there can be a good five to ten minute spread between all the watches in the room. Writing down your HJ speech in advance is obviously a great idea! No need to forget things and look unprofessional and no danger of losing that fickle beast, player's attention. And all you need to do to help out your hearing-impaired players is show them your notes when you're done.

Visual impairments

Nature: The player has lessened or no sight.

Problems: If the player has impaired vision, he may have a hard time distinguishing cards. Drafting in particular is very strenuous. If the player is totally blind, he is likely to need a reader to assist him in playing.

Resolution: A case study first. A blind player attends casual weekly Standard tournaments at a venue I know. He travels to them as a social event, to keep close to his Magic-playing son. This is the essence of what is good about our game. This player sits by his son, who reads the names of the cards in his hand for him. He gives up this hidden information in order to be able to play. As the tournament is unsanctioned, this works very well. For a FNM you might consider allowing this, or asking that the reader not be a player himself. For a higher REL event, the problems of revealing of information, coaching, and slow play become troublesome. The DCI does not have an official policy on this.

Lessons: Not all conditions are equally adjustable. Sometimes, you will not be able to fit a player into your event. Do your best.

Manipulation impairments

Nature: Due to an injury, nervous disorder, or other condition, the player finds manipulating objects difficult.

Problems: Shuffling, tapping, and searching are slowed. Other game actions are also slowed. The player may not be able to randomise his deck sufficiently by himself.

Resolution: First of all, it's easy to fall into the trap of saying that a player has to be able to randomise his own deck sufficiently and within a reasonable amount of time. If the player is happy for his opponent to do it for him, to cut afterwards, then that's fine.

The larger issue with these types of condition is slow play. Performing game actions will take the player longer than we would normally allow. However, we need to analyse our definition of the Slow Play infraction to see the difference. Certainly the player isn't guilty of Stalling - the slowness is not his decision. Is he guilty of Slow Play? This depends on what he is doing slowly - making decisions or acting upon them? Ask the player to clearly declare what he is intending to do at the start of his action. Then you can know that the delay is due only to the impairment, not a Slow Play problem. For example, if the player quickly decides on his blocks, but takes 20-30 seconds to get all the cards in the right place, there is no Slow Play occurring. It may irk some player to be "denied" a Slow Play warning for an opponent who is playing at a reduced pace because of this; be prepared to be challenged on your decision.

Lessons: Hopefully this will make it clear to you an aspect of Slow Play philosophy that you may not have considered. This is also helpful if you have a dyslexic or learning-impaired player, who might take a little longer to absorb the text of a card.

The Penalty Guide and the Disabled Player

There are a few key areas of the Penalty Guide document that you should know when you're dealing with a disabled player:

  • The Slow Play guidelines and philosophy
  • The philosophy that judges should treat all players equally

Furthermore, it is important that, whilst working as hard as you reasonably can to include disabled players in your event, you not give them too much leeway. The disabled player is exactly as likely to be guilty of an infraction as anyone else. Do not think that just because a player is in a wheelchair that he can't be given a penalty for Tardiness when he come back five minutes late from a smoking or meal break. Dealing with disabled people is based on equality - not positive discrimination.

If you do give a penalty to a player with a disability, or withhold a penalty that you might normally give to that player, be prepared to discuss your decision. Educating the player and opponents about how the Penalty Guide applies might not only stop them from complaining about a decision that negatively affects them - it might help restore their confidence that the judge programme is fair.

I'm going to end with a little case study that shows how things can work out for the best. At Grand Prix: Copenhagen in 2008, a player with impaired sight was in attendance. He rang ahead and told the TO that he was coming, and explained the nature of his condition. All he needed to be able to play normally was an electronic scanner that helped him identify his cards. The player was set up using fixed seating so he could be near a power point for his scanner. He was then left to his own devices to play as normal. And that's all there is to the story! The lesson is that when it's done right, catering for players with special requirements won't even be noticeable.

I would love to hear more tips, stories, and opinions on these issues. Like a lot of judging matters, there's no firm answer to the problems posed in this article. Please post a comment if you have something to share.

Research for this article is based on personal experience and discussions with several disabled persons, both Magic players and non-players, for whose assistance I am very thankful.

David Lyford-Smith