Kids with Special Needs Can Now Be Pinball Wizards

A new pinball machine controller debuts at Pinball Expo in Schaumburg.

When Pinball Expo ‘23 rolls into Schaumburg on Oct. 18, with it comes the first-ever Freedom to Play Pinball Tournament where all players will use a new controller created for people with disabilities that levels the playing field.

It’s an important step, say the minds behind Inclusive GameWerks and Project Pinball Charity, which have teamed up to create the tournament.

Project Pinball, whose mission is to donate pinball machines to children’s hospitals, Ronald McDonald Houses and adult care facilities, had been working to make the games more accessible and inclusive when Inclusive GameWerks came to its attention.

Photo credit: Inclusive GameWerks

“We want to make sure no one is left on the sidelines,” says Project Pinball Senior Founder/Director Daniel Spolar. The reality is, though, that there are people watching on the sidelines while others play the popular games that date back to the 1930s. “All it takes is modification just to be inclusive. My focus has become to really push this. We need to do better. We need to include people who don’t have a choice in the matter,” he says.

The hexagon-shaped Inclusive GameWerks controller came out of a conversation among friends who wanted to play pinball, says Co-Founder Zack Christofferson, who has muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair. But he says he had no interest in joining his friends because he couldn’t physically move the flippers. 

The new controller now allows people with limited mobility to play but doesn’t take over the machine or change the way it plays. Christofferson himself now plays daily, enjoying newfound fun with his kids and even date nights with his wife.

Everything I like to do in my life is geared towards hopefully making the world a better place. I’ve been really fortunate that all six of us (founders) have been able to grow our knowledge together and start making some of these small ripples. When you get to see a child or another adult who has gone through some hard times and get to do (play) again or for the first time even, it’s absolutely heartwarming,” he says.

At the Pinball Expo tournament, players with and without disabilities will compete using the new controller.

Quick details about Pinball Expo ‘23

What: Founded in 1985, Pinball Expo is the longest-running event dedicated to pinball. Expect vendors, tournaments, seminars and free pinball play.

When: Oct. 18-21

Where: Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel, 1551 N. Thoreau Drive, Schaumburg

Cost: $45 single day/adults, free/kids 12 and under

Hours: Thursday 6-11 p.m., free play area 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Friday 4-11 p.m., free play area noon-2 a.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-10 p.m., free play area 10-2 a.m.

Parking: $10 near venue, $21 valet parking, free within a short walk to the venue.

Donation to Lurie Children’s

While they are in town, Project Pinball is set to donate a Jurassic Park pinball machine from Stern Pinball to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Hospital on Oct. 24. The machine will be equipped with the Inclusive GameWerks’ accessible controller.

The theme featuring dinos is one kids fall in love with at first sight, Spolar says.

But why pinball? “We found out that is so beneficial and therapeutic for them to have a fun distraction,” Spolar says. “… It’s a great way to remove a person from the stress that they’re feeling. It’s a great release, it’s a great distraction.”

Project Pinball is on a mission to put more pinball machines where they are needed. To donate to help, visit its booth at the Pinball Expo or projectpinball.org. Spolar says money donated here stays here to add more pinball machines in local hospitals or care centers.


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Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Since 1984, the Chicago Parent editorial team is trained to be the go-to source for Chicagoland families, offering a rich blend of expert advice, compelling stories, and the top local activities for kids. Renowned for their award-winning content, the team of editors and writers are dedicated to enriching family life by connecting parents with the finest resources and experiences our community has to offer.

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