Let’s change attitudes to disability, one toy at a time

Rebecca AtkinsonAuthor Rebecca AtkinsonDate 07 Nov 2016

Rebecca Atkinson is a freelance journalist and creative disability consultant for children’s industries. Here she looks at the lack of diversity and disabilities in children’s toys and how this has been the driving force behind her campaign #toylikeme

"To see yourself reflected by huge toy brands like Playmobil and Lego is about more than just a toy. It's about these brands saying that you are worth it, that everyone should be included and celebrated, not just able bodied children.

Since my last child was born six years ago, something else has bred in our house. Toys. We started off with a few rattles, and as the years progressed the plastic proliferated into an army of Playmobil, a soup of Lego, a sea of Sylvanians. Just after my daughter’s sixth birthday last year, I noticed something startling obvious about our toy box. Not one plastic figure had a wheelchair, hearing aid, white cane or any kind of disability at all.

 I have spent nearly 20 years working in TV production and print journalism (including Children’s BBC) and had always been interested in the way these industries represent disabled people, but this was the first time I had noticed the startling lack of representation in the toy industry. I took to the internet to see if I could find any disability representative toys. Google returned near empty searches, and what did exist was so boring and grey it spoke nothing but negativity to children.

As someone who had grown up wearing hearing aids, I remembered first-hand how it felt to be a child who never saw themselves represented by the mainstream and what that can do to self esteem. I wanted to change this for generations to come and get global brands like Lego, Mattel and Playmobil to include representations of disability in their products.

The next morning I called on some fellow mothers, including former Ragdoll play consultant, Karen Newell who has a son with vision impairment. With their help we launched the online #ToyLikeMe campaign to call on the global toy industry to start positively representing disability and end the cultural marginalisation of 150 million disabled children worldwide.

I plundered my kids’ toy boxes and starting making over toys to give them disabilities and asked other parents to do the same. Like a match to a firework factory, things went bang and within days our image of a Disney Tinkerbell doll with a model cochlear implant had gone viral with hundred of parents asking where they could buy it, prompting global press coverage.

These parents were responding to what I call ‘the ping of recognition’, a deep sense of identification experienced by someone in a minority when you see your experience reflected back at you in the cultural mainstream.

It’s the same feeling you might have if you were abroad in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language and see a stranger from your home country, after months of travelling alone. You most likely will go up and talk to them, ask them where they are from, look for common ground, perhaps feel some form of instant affinity. This is what many parents of disabled children do too, look around for commonality, people experiencing the same things as their child, things that will reassure them their child will be OK, will be valued by mainstream society. By marrying characters like Tinkerbelle with the minority experience of having a cochlear implant, #ToyLikeMe creates shareable images which are propelled by that ‘ping of recognition’.

There is a potency in showing a child with a difference (whatever that might be) a mainstream character like themselves. It’s hugely powerful and affirming for that child to see themselves reflected positively in the cultural mainstream.

In January 2016 Lego unveiled their first ever wheelchair-using mini-figure at Nuremberg Toy Fair. The UK press attributed #ToyLikeMe’s influence to this product and the story was carried by global press and met with jubilation proving that sometimes the smallest of things have the capacity to make the biggest of impacts. The significance of this move by Lego should not be underestimated. Children’s industries, not just toys, but books, TV, film and games really do have the power to change lives by changing perceptions.

For disabled children growing up being the only one in your class or school to use a wheelchair or a hearing aids and never seeing anyone like you in the world around you can lead to a sense of isolation and low self-esteem. #ToyLikeMe doesn't advocate that toy companies should make disabled toys for disabled children per se. We strongly believe that ALL children will benefit from incidental disability being positively included across all Children’s Industries. If we can create a more inclusive landscape in the media, then perhaps we can educate by stealth and change attitudes in the real world too."