TikTok rant goes viral, results in secure on-line gaming for special-needs youngsters

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

Tired of her special needs son being ignored, Linda Espada sparked the move after a TikTok rant went viral.

Espada’s 13-year-old son Jacob couldn’t get anyone to play video games with him.

Mama Linda Espada was frustrated that her son Jacob Espada, 13, couldn't get anyone to play video games with him.  So mom posted a video on TikTok, an online video social media site, encouraging gamers to give children with special needs a chance to play.  Espada, 13, has cerebral palsy which makes it difficult for other gamers to understand him while playing the hugely popular online game

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

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Espada said Jacob was trying to play a game but as soon as the other players heard him speak they would kick him off their team. Jacob, who can play even though he has difficulty communicating, couldn’t understand why no one wanted him.

Espada brought her frustration to TikTok, an online video social media site.

“If you hear that they might be a bit louder or their communication is messed up, give them a chance,” she pleaded. “My son plays so well … (special needs children) are like everyone else … give them a chance.”

The post went viral, with more than half a million likes and around 100,000 people responding to it.

More importantly, players across the country took action to make sure people like Jacob weren’t left out.

A friendly reply from a stranger

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

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

Tucker Fegley, a 22-year-old factory worker from Pennsylvania, is committed to creating positive, safe spaces for children to play video games online.  Fegley took action after watching a Sarasota mother's TikTok video in which she said no one would give her son with cerebral palsy a chance to play.

He volunteered to host a gaming session for Jacob on Twitch, a live streaming gaming platform. Espada promoted the event on their newly popular TikTok account and Fegley recruited friends to host the event to make sure everyone stayed positive.

(For those unfamiliar with Twitch and TikTok, this is essentially like posting flyers all around the neighborhood saying, Come on Sunday, play basketball and recruiting friends to referees.)

The response was overwhelming.

Fegley set up a four-person game so that he, Jacob, and Jacob’s brother would play consistently and a fourth teammate would get on and off. Over eight hours of gameplay, about 1,500 people watched and hundreds waited to play with Jacob.

Twitch is known as the place where young gamers, usually boys, swear at each other and talk rubbish. What Fegley offered was a safe place to easily make friends and have fun playing. It’s not just for children with disabilities, said Fegley, but for anyone who wants to play and is looking for friendliness.

The moderators remove anyone from the session who types or says something inappropriate.

“You are not verbally abused. There is no bullying. There is no hatred,” said Espada.

Jacob Espada from Sarasota plays

Jacob made new friends through the experience, particularly with Fegley and a girl named Sammy. They both treat Jacob like a normal friend, talking to him about things like Batman over the headset, and helping him out when he gets stuck.

Twitch sessions have become weekly events, which Jacob looks forward to when his online celebrity status grows with this special crowd of players. Espada said he stopped staring at the TV wondering why he’s the only person no one is going to play with.

Jacob Espada, 13, from Sarasota, plays

“He’s been so much more loving since this happened,” she said. “He knows he has more friends and he’s happier. It’s like night and day for us.”

It’s a turning point for a kid like Jacob, and Espada is amazed at the friendliness of a stranger like Fegley who changed her son’s life.

“He’s fantastic with Jacob and Jacob loves him,” said Espada. “Tucker understands these children as well as he speaks to them and how he treats them. Such things, as I say, cannot be taught. ”

Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at ryan.mckinnon@heraldtribune.com or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by registering today.

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