TikTok’s rant goes viral, leads to safe online games for kids with special needs

A Sarasota mother and a worker at a Pennsylvania dog food factory have teamed up to create a safe haven for children with disabilities to play video games online.

Fed up with her son with special needs being ignored, Linda Espada sparked the movement after a TikTok rant went viral.

Espada’s 13-year-old son Jacob failed to convince anyone to play video games with him.

Mum, Linda Espada was frustrated that her 13-year-old son Jacob Espada couldn't convince anyone to play video games with him.  So mom posted a video on TikTok, an online video social media site, where she urged gamers to give children with special needs a chance to play.  Espada, 13, has cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult for other players to understand him when playing the very popular online game

Jacob has cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult for other players to understand him when playing the ever popular online game Fortnite, where players communicate through headsets.

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Espada said Jacob would try to join a game, but as soon as other players heard him speak, they would kick him out of their squad. Jacob, who can play even though he has trouble communicating, couldn’t understand why no one wanted him.

Espada conveyed his frustration to TikTok, an online video social media site.

“If you hear that maybe they are a little louder or their communication is scrambled, give them a chance,” she pleaded. “My son plays so well … (Children with special needs) are like everyone else … Give them a chance.”

The post went viral, with over half a million likes and around 100,000 people responding.

More importantly, players across the country have taken action to make sure people like Jacob are not left behind.

The kind response from a stranger

One of those who responded was Tucker Fegley, a 22-year-old Pennsylvania dog food factory worker who has never worked with disabled children but found some of his closest friendships through the online gaming community.

“You can go your whole life thinking that you don’t have good friends and then you go into this video game and you have solid friends,” Fegley said.

Tucker Fegley, a 22-year-old factory worker from Pennsylvania, is leading an effort to create safe and positive spaces for children to play video games online.  Fegley sprang into action after seeing a Sarasota mom's TikTok video, where she said no one would give her cerebral palsy son a chance to play.

He volunteered to host a game session for Jacob on Twitch, a live gaming platform. Espada advertised the event on their new TikTok account, and Fegley recruited friends to moderate the event to make sure everyone stays positive.

(For those unfamiliar with Twitch and TikTok, it’s basically like putting flyers all over the neighborhood saying to come play basketball on Sundays and recruit friends to serve as referees.)

The response has been overwhelming.

Fegley set up a four-person game, so that he, Jacob, and Jacob’s brother would play regularly, and a fourth teammate would alternate. Over eight hours of play, around 1,500 people watched, with hundreds waiting their turn to play with Jacob.

Twitch is known as a place where young players, usually boys, curse and talk to each other. What Fegley offered was a safe place to come and make friends and have fun while playing. It’s not just for children with disabilities, Fegley said, it’s for anyone who wants to play and is looking for cuteness.

Moderators remove from the session anyone who types or says anything inappropriate.

“They will not be insulted. There is no intimidation. There is no hatred,” Espada said.

Jacob Espada of Sarasota playing

Jacob made new friends through the experience, bonding in particular with Fegley and a girl named Sammy. The two treat Jacob like a regular friend, chatting with him about things like Batman in the Helmet and helping him out when he gets stuck.

Twitch sessions have become weekly events, something Jacob looks forward to as his online celebrity status grows with this particular crowd of gamers. Espada said he no longer watched TV, wondering why he was the only person that no one would play with.

Jacob Espada, 13, from Sarasota, playing "Fortnite" with online gamer Samantha Ceska, 24, from Mississippi, as you can see her reflection in her favorite Batman mirror in her bedroom.

“He’s been so much more affectionate since it happened,” she said. “He knows he has more friends, and he’s happier, it’s like night and day to us.”

It’s a game-changer for a child like Jacob, and Espada marvels at the kindness of a stranger like Fegley, who changed her son’s life.

“He’s fantastic with Jacob, and Jacob loves him,” Espada said. “Tucker is so good with these kids in the way he talks to them and the way he interacts with them. Things like that, I say you can’t teach. It’s just compassion and empathy. and the ability to connect, and we are grateful. ”

Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at [email protected] or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.


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