some text
Marla Rush plays air hockey with assistance from Rachel Strader at the Heartland Arcade at the Orange Grove Center on its first day of operation. The arcade is modified to provide gaming opportunities for individuals who have limited mobility and are wheel-chair accessible

Innovative assistance for the developmentally disabled and how to get a high score on pinball are two of the things that Dr. Rick Rader knows well.

"Everything you need to know in life you can learn in an arcade," Rader said. Arcade games teach and develop motor skills, self-esteem, cooperation and persistence, just to name a few.

Two years ago, Rader began dreaming of how he could combine his love for arcade games with his passion for habilitation, the process of helping a person with developmental disabilities increase his capabilities and independence in daily activities.

He turned his dream into a plan and began collaborating with donors, research scientists and an arcade game retailer. On Friday, Rader's dream materialized as the Heartland Arcade opened on the Orange Grove Center's campus.

The arcade is the first of its kind, according to Rader.

It offers more than a dozen games specifically selected by Rader and modified by Chattanooga Pinball in order to offer bigger buttons and levers, making them more accessible to people with a variety of disabilities.

Rader, the director of habilitation at Orange Grove, said the purpose of the arcade is to provide more than fun - he hopes to see scientific results.

Orange Grove has partnered with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Department of Health Promotion and Human Performance to help track the expected benefits of the arcade in a scientific manner.

Studies show there are benefits for people who use wheelchairs and who can move to or be held in an upright position. Other studies write about the positive effects of activities that require repeated use of motor skills for people with developmental disabilities.

And Rader has personally observed and written about the benefits of joy for the disabled. He believes that the results from each of these studies will be combined in the arcade.

Gary Liguori, department head for health promotion and human performance at UTC, said the department plans to start observing people as they play and interact in the arcade and will track any trends that emerge.

"We will take our observations and determine which of them we can quantitatively and qualitatively track," Liguori said.

Specific studies are yet to be determined, but the preliminary plan is to track the impact of the arcade on things like a change in an individual's motor skills, emotional well-being, social interactions, and hand-eye coordination, according to Liguori.

This is the first such project for UTC, Liguori said, and the department is excited to see how students and faculty work together to document the effects of the arcade on those who use it.

The Orange Grove Center is a private nonprofit organization that works with more than 700 adults and children throughout the region with developmental disabilities.

Darla has cerebral palsy and has been participating in Orange Grove's day program for several years. On Friday she was able to play a game while being held upright for the first time in more than 40 years.

She was held upright in a Kay-Walker, a harness attached to a large metal frame that can be rolled directly up to the games.

As Darla played air hockey, her screams of excitement echoed throughout the room as she hit - or missed - the plastic red puck with her paddle.

"This is the first time in her life she has been able to stand up like this," said Missy Lewis, a speaking language assistant at the center who works with Darla.

"This is not just physical therapy," Lewis said. "She is having so much fun!"

Rader said the arcade and the equipment like the Kay-Walker allow games and experiences such as driving to become accessible to almost everyone at the center.

"Now, a guy who has never been able to drive will get to have a simulated experience," said Rader, pointing toward the Harley-Davidson motorcycle game.

Organizers declined to reveal the cost of the arcade.

Funding for it came from Heartland Ranch, an organization located in Rossville that seeks to offer creative forms of therapy.

"We have seen there are better outcomes through alternative therapy," said Bobbie Standefer, a founder of Heartland who came to the arcade's opening.

Heartland has helped to fund several projects at Orange Grove, but Standefer said this one is by far the largest project it has undertaken.

"We were sold on this project because of the research they plan to do and how much fun these games are," she said.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at or at 423-757-6592.