Disabled people playing chess: Equality for everyone

A person with a disability can participate in chess tournaments against non-disabled people or other disabled individuals with a Fide rating. People who lack sight can have a custom board that allows touching of the pieces, physical-lacking competitors can have assistants to move the pieces.

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If you take a look at how many bodily functions we use to play chess then you can notice that it is not that much, we use our hands, sight, and that’s pretty much it.

With this knowledge in mind I have wondered if disabled people are actually included in chess competitions, and are they allowed to participate in chess games in general?

There are only a few competitions out there that fully support the engagement of such individuals, so if chess does support them it will have a meaning to me. And hopefully to you too, this is to raise awareness and appreciation of this game that promotes inclusion.

Without further ado, I will introduce you to this topic.

Are disabled people allowed to compete in chess tournaments?

Disabled chess competitors are allowed to engage in chess tournaments whether it is against non-disabled individuals, disabled individuals only, or even in an online tournament that applies to both.

Interestingly there are different tournament formats that people with disabilities can participate in, one of which is belonging in an event where other non-disabled individuals can compete.

Other non-disabled competitors would not have the right to refuse a match against a disabled person since it is treated as a formal tournament round, the match will go on as if it was a normal battle.

Like with the women section for example, there aren’t any major prohibitions for people with disabilities that prevent them from playing against other players.

Such individuals can choose to compete in such a setting if they willed it (they are not forced) knowing fully well that they would have certain limitations against their opponents.

They will have the option to do it but will not be forced to do so, if the said disabled competitor can believe that they can thrive in such an environment they have the right to participate. 

Chess tournaments for disabled people only

Of course it cannot be denied that disabled individuals are less likely to compete on the same level as non-disabled players, so it is an option to only battle against other disabled competitors.

There is an actual tournament reserved for people with disabilities to level the playing field by making them play against each other, there will be little to no edge whatsoever since their opponents to a degree are also disabled.

This is to eliminate any element of unfairness that could be a stigma in the tournament matches, where disabled individuals are to be beaten left and right.

By making them play against each other they are likely to win at some point and gain confidence in their abilities, which is the goal of inclusion.

This way the level of opposition is more balanced, where the competitors are more likely to enjoy their experience than if they were to be put in a setting where non-disabled individuals can take advantage of them.

Online chess tournaments for disabled individuals

The proof of a push for inclusion of these marginalized groups is seen in the existence of the first Online Chess Olympiad for People with Disabilities.

With chess events getting more prominent online, the participation of disabled individuals should also move in virtual settings, this is to keep up with the competition of modern chess.

It is not as developed in terms of tournament structure where non-disabled competitors play but should be a stepping stone (first online chess olympiad for people with disabilities) to progress the system.

At the moment disabled-only online chess tournaments exist but will surely evolve to compete with non-disabled competitors pretty soon with the way things are going.

Online chess tournaments for people with disabilities will present various challenges depending on the actual disability of the person where some would have more advantages than others.

However, I think that certain conditions will be in place eventually to keep things fair.

How do chess tournaments deal with the disability of the competitor?

If the disabled chess competitor is having trouble with their sight they can have a custom board that allows touching of the pieces to feel the position, if it is physical they can have an assistant to move the pieces, or if it is mental they are allowed to compete as long as they are capable.

In order to properly play chess the biggest factor for a disabled player is the nature of their incapacitation, where there will be different assistance depending on where they are lacking.

If the disability is with sight, there is a specialized format for blind/partially blind people where both players will receive a custom chessboard to properly navigate their positions.

Here is a good explanation I’ve found in youtube which really captured the essence of this condition:

Both players will have their own chessboard where they have to replicate the choices of moves made by the opponent, they are allowed to touch the pieces without being restricted by the touch-move rule to identify where the pieces are at.

They are of course blind or partially-blind so they are not able to accurately tell which moves their opponents have made, having both boards can allow them to see things with more space and without the intrusion of the opponent’s hands.

They can also choose to focus their eyes by looking near the pieces if they are just partially blind, if not, they are not restricted to touch the pieces and move them (touch-move rule).

If someone is completely blind for example they would not be capable of seeing the pieces even in a near distance, they can however touch every single one of them to identify the position.

This will make it harder to play for them, yes but not impossible, there are a lot of titled players out there that can play blindfold chess reasonably (though not at full strength).

Touching really is the best assistance that can be given to a blind person since chess is just visual in nature, but there are certain perks in the custom chessboard to help them further.

Holes in the custom chessboard for blind people

The custom chessboard will have several functionalities for example having a hole in each tile where the earphones from the clock can be connected to tell the remaining time.

A blind/partially-blind competitor will not be able to tell how much time is remaining unless there is audio that tells them such information, this is one of the main perks of the holes.

When the earphone has been plugged into the hole there will be someone/something telling how much time is remaining on both players’ clock giving the information.

This is usually less of a factor though since blind competitors are more likely to play in longer time controls where time troubles hardly matter (checking that time is only important in some instances).

There are holes everywhere so blind people can easily find one by touching and plug their earphone.

The hole in the custom chessboard keeps the pieces in place

Another functionality of these custom chess boards is that they have pieces that have extension under the material, this can be attached to the hole in the board.

This embeds the pieces in place preventing them from being knocked over while the blind participant touches them to recognize the position, preserving the placement of pieces in a tense match.

It also sticks the pieces to the board enough that there aren’t any minor inconsistencies in the placement of the tiles which could confuse the players while they touch the pieces, the chess notations can be affected with this as well.

The third-party who oversees the match may have a glimpse of spacing out and failed to write the notation only to find the board unorganized, such is very difficult to record.

Third-party individuals write the notations for blind players

If the player is completely blind they will have a voice recorder where the competitor can tell the moves for a third-party organizer to record the notations themselves (since blind people cannot write).

The games have to be recorded still since it is a fair practice that allows some reviews if the position gets messed up, assistance to the blind player/players are given.

Blind players will speak up the moves in form of notation

Both players will whisper the chosen move in the form of a chess notation so they can communicate which move they have chosen to play, or require the opponent to do the same for them to learn the moves.

It will be impossible after all for a blind competitor to replicate which move has been chosen by the opponent if they don’t know the notation, they will also speak it out for the opponent to confirm.

We are talking about a blind player after all which can misplace some pieces that they fail to recognize, the opponent who may not be disabled has the role of ensuring that it doesn’t happen.

On the other hand, whispering the notation (not talking loud since it is prohibited) will allow the blind competitor to confirm the moves, lying is of course unforgivable and deserves some penalty.

Do not think though that blind competitors are completely helpless, this player who is completely blind has demonstrated his memory/speed:

Deaf players can play chess easily

If the incapacitation is about lack of hearing it usually doesn’t get in the way of playing chess since the game is more visual, otherwise, players may bring their hearing aids to tournaments if it can help (partially deaf).

The only noise that can be associated with chess is the sound the clocks make when pushed, this does not in any way help with performance in actual matches.

Deaf players can pretty much see what’s going in on the board and appropriately respond (without much hassle) unlike with blind players.

They can even write the moves themselves with ease since their disability does not in any way give them much disadvantage (in fact it can be an advantage if the playing hall is boisterous and they cannot hear the distraction).

Physically-disabled individuals can have an assistant

If the incapacitation is physical particularly with the hands, then the participant can move the pieces with one hand and push the clock with the same hand to accommodate the disability.

If the competitor is missing two hands a third-party assistant can come in to push the pieces while the competitor just dictates the notation, the assistant can push the clock as well.

If the competitor is missing a leg and is in a wheelchair it shouldn’t really affect their capability to play chess since they would just be sitting, they can use some aids to move around.

It is way better than a disabled person who cannot use their hands since chess is generally played in a stationary form, if they can get on the board they are pretty much set to play a normal game of chess.

If the physical deformities of an aspiring competitor are so severe that they can no longer move the pieces/push the clock they can also have an assistant to do that while they can just tell the moves.

What I mean by that is there are certain diseases that make the physical attributes of an individual so weak that they cannot even push the pieces, they could still compete with that caveat in mind.

Mentally challenged individuals can play chess for the most part

If the disability is mental they can play as long as the event does not prove to be detrimental to their mental health in any way, otherwise, they may not be able to join.

The liability will fall to the organizers if they actually allow participation of someone in threat of mental attacks, if there is no threat then it should be fine.

In fact, chess is a common therapy for people suffering from mental ailments and even depression, it may actually help the individual to let them join in some instances.

There will be an evaluation depending on the severity of the mental illness and whether it can affect the individual due to the stressful nature of tournaments, this would determine if they can enter.

Different federations will handle disabled people differently

Different federations will have different policies that lay out the conditions of dealing with disabled people but should run on the same idea, which is to allow these people to be included in formal competitions.

The ones that I’ve talked about above are the common practices but there exist other standards that may apply to your area, there are many federations out there after all.

Currently, there are three international associations for blind players (IBCA), for physically impaired players (IPCA), and deaf players (ICCD).

Disabled people will also be under the federation of their own country depending on the nature of the event, however, the groups above are for disabled people only.

Each one of them is affiliated to FIDE and, traditionally, each one of these three organizations would have a team representing them at the World Chess Olympiad.

Can disabled competitors excel in chess like normal people do?

Disabled chess players will find it hard to defeat normal competitors since playing is much difficult for them, they are however allowed to engage in chess tournaments by having a Fide rating potentially even gaining a title.

These individuals as long as they can provide evidence to be able to compete without degrading their health can be granted a Fide rating, meaning they will be treated the same as with normal people.

It is quite unfair to deprive someone of the right to gauge their improvement just because they are disabled, this promotes a symbolism that they are still included in the game.

Just the fact that they can still have a Fide rating gives them the opportunity to prove that they are still able to excel even with whatever disability that they have.

The indicators to achieve this goal are quite suspicious (non-disabled people have an advantage) but an opportunity is still an opportunity.

It is harder for a chess player to excel if they have a disability?

It is easy to say that this inclusion will inevitably get a disabled person in the top at some point right? that is not the case however.

There are obviously limitations for disabled people when it comes to their ability to compete with non-disabled individuals, they will have a form of disadvantage before the game depending on their incapability.

If they are blind they are less likely to find the winning moves in the position, if they don’t have hands they will play more slowly since they cannot push the clock as fast.

At the top of the chess world every individual advantage matters, which is why everyone is obsessing about the openings, so it is possible but pretty unlikely the way things are going.

A disabled person can play casual chess just fine

Casual chess (not rated) is definitely friendly for disabled individuals since their opponents can easily understand their needs and craft conditions for playing with them.

They wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of figuring out how the federation in-place deals with their complications, they can just tell their opponent what is convenient for them.

Other rules can be put in place as well if the opponent is understanding, playing casually also eliminates the stress of having a good outcome.

Competing in tournaments inevitably puts pressure on the person which may affect their individual confidence and even the health of the said person, so playing casually is a choice.

Do you now know if disabled people can play chess?

Chess is a game that doesn’t require a lot of functions to be able to play beyond the sight and a hand to move the pieces, this gives room for people with disabilities.

You will only realize how good this situation is if you are disabled yourself, you want to showcase your talent but cannot do so since you are physically incapable.

This provides a home for all people that have a talent that may have been in unfortunate circumstances but tries to continue their story on the board.

It gives hope that there is still something to achieve in life and a reason to continue living on, I think that is a wonderful thing.

Personally I am inspired just by learning this information, I hope you relate to me as well, sleep well and play chess.

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