Microsoft, a sponsor of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, came up with the idea to add a car-racing gaming event to the Olympics, a first for the organization.

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Trevor Shaw and Tessa Van Ry, who went to school together at Wilson High School in Tacoma, had never played car-racing video game “Forza Motorsport 7” before blowing away the competition at a Bellevue tournament in April.

The teammates relied on their knowledge of video games and their natural competitive nature, honed through years of playing basketball and soccer at school together, to race the virtual cars around a track.

Now, Shaw and Van Ry are headed to the biggest gaming competition of their lives so far —  the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, which this year will feature a video game tournament for the first time.

Special Olympics USA Games

Seattle | July 1 – 6

The pair is one of eight groups qualified to play in the first Special Olympics Xbox tournament, being held at the University of Washington on Monday.

“I like the challenge,” said Shaw, 20, who is on the autism spectrum and plays with his “unified partner” Van Ry, 17. Many Special Olympics sports create teams made up of unified partners, or athletes without intellectual disabilities, and athletes who do have intellectual disabilities.

In the “Forza” event at  Special Olympics, both teammates will race different cars at the same time, and their times will be combined to compare against those of other teams.

Microsoft, which makes Xbox and created “Forza,” came up with the idea to add a gaming event to Special Olympics, spurred by the recent rising popularity of esports competitions. The company also has a growing focus on making technology more accessible to people with disabilities.

“You can see the joy of gaming and the joy of competition is really universal,” said Katy Jo Wright, director of Gaming for Everyone at Xbox, a group that focuses on making gaming inclusive.

A technical view

Microsoft is the premier partner of the Games this year, having given more than $3 million in cash and services to Special Olympics. The company has partnered with  Special Olympics since 2014, the same year CEO Satya Nadella took over the reins of the company. Nadella has been the driving force behind much of the company’s accessibility initiatives, encouraging company groups to invest in technology such as the Xbox adaptive controller, which allows people with disabilities to easily play video games, and Seeing AI, a camera app that narrates the world for people with vision impairments.

Nadella has a son with cerebral palsy, which he has said helped him realize the importance of technology that is easy for everyone to use.

Many Microsoft employees have gotten behind the mission, with 1,600  already signed up to volunteer at  Special Olympics. Businesses across the region have come out in full force, said Dave Lenox, CEO of Special Olympics Washington.

More than 300 Amazon employees have volunteered for the event, and the company made it possible for customers to donate to  Special Olympics using its virtual assistant, Alexa.

Brooks  also is taking part, signing up hundreds of employee volunteers and donating running shoes to many athletes.

Lenox originally hoped to get 7,500 volunteers to pitch in during the 2018 Games, but more than 12,000 people have signed up.

At Microsoft, the prime volunteer spots were filled within 15 minutes of the company opening registration. That rush is apparent on every accessible-tech project, said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer for Microsoft.

“This is something that grounds our employees,” she said. “It’s meaningful work.”

An influx of tech volunteers who work with the organization year-round, spurred on by Microsoft’s involvement in 2014,  is making Special Olympics more effective in general, Lenox said. A few volunteers came to him earlier this year with the idea for a project to connect athletes’ medical records with their educational files and recreation documents, with the hope of creating a complete picture that gives coaches and caregivers the best options to help people.

That idea is still in the early stages, Lenox said, but the concentration of tech companies in the area makes him hopeful it’ll get done.

Beyond the Games

Microsoft President Brad Smith said he is excited for the week of sports competition in Seattle, but he’s really hoping it will spark something that lasts more than a week.

“I hope this is a galvanizing force for a greater awareness and appreciation across the Puget Sound region about what people with disabilities can contribute,” he said.

Microsoft in early June held a job fair geared specifically for people with disabilities as part of the company’s internal Ability Summit, designed to promote inclusivity in technology and hiring. It was the first year Microsoft had opened up part of the summit, allowing the public to come to the job fair, where more than 15 companies met with job candidates.

Smith, who serves as honorary chair of the 2018 Games, said one of Microsoft’s goals is to show other companies what it has learned about hiring and creating welcoming work environments for people with disabilities.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about double that of people without disabilities. It’s especially high for people with autism, and Microsoft has been exploring techniques to increase employment of these job candidates. It has hired 50 people with autism through its hiring program since 2014, and has learned that success depends as much on training managers and co-workers as it does on training the new hires.

“It was important for us to get our own house in order – and we needed to take some steps to get our house in order,” Smith said. “We have learned some important things we can share with others and learn from them.”

Game on

Across the country in Connecticut, 17-year-old twin brothers Christian and Nathan Aponte are concentrating on winning the Xbox competition this week.

The Aponte brothers, much like Shaw and Van Ry from Tacoma, have been playing in school unified sports programs supported by  Special Olympics for years. They play video games in general, but had never tried “Forza” before the organization approached their coach and told him of the upcoming games.

Nathan, who has an intellectual disability, and Christian, the unified partner, usually play on Playstations at home, so the Xbox was a pretty new experience for them. But, no matter, they say, they’re focused on winning and having fun playing together.

“It’s always fun to play with another individual,” Nathan said. “You feel connected with people who are playing the same game.”

It’s a similar bond for Shaw and Van Ry, who regularly check in with each other with quick glances while playing.

Van Ry is a seasoned athlete —  but video games were almost completely new to her when she heard the Special Olympics would feature  gaming competition. Shaw was interested, and encouraged Van Ry to play.

“I have a new respect for people who play video games,” Van Ry said. “It’s a mentally stimulating sport.”

As for the future of gaming within Special Olympics, Lenox said it remains to be seen if it will become an official part of the international games. But Washington state will certainly expand it within its school programs, he said.