9 months of lobbying by the #ToyLikeMe group, led by UK journalist and creative disability consultant, Rebecca Atkinson, made Lego produce the first ever figurine with a disability. The story began with a petition on Change.org urging the toy industry to represent disability.
The toy industry shuts out children with disabilities. We want to change that
The public response to the Toy Like Me campaign’s inspiring new dolls has been huge. But the business’s big players have yet to meet our challenge
Toy Like Me have specially modified toys to positively reflect disability. Photograph: BethMoseleyPhotography.co.uk
Since my last child was born five years ago something else has bred in my house. Toys. We started off with a few rattles, and as the years progressed the plastic proliferated into an army of Playmobil figures, a soup of Lego, a sea of cutesy Sylvanian rabbits. But four weeks ago I stood back and looked at our toy box in a new light. A penny dropped. Not one plastic figure had a wheelchair, or a hearing aid, a white cane or any kind of disability at all.
There are 770,000 children in the UK with disabilities and more than 150 million worldwide. Yet these children arrive into a world where, even before they have left their mother’s lap, they are excluded by the very industry that exists to create their entertainment, the objects that fuel their development, the starting blocks of life: toys.
The global toy industry is worth £2.9bn but there are no wheelchair-using Barbies (Mattel’s toe-curlingly named Share a Smile Becky was discontinued several years ago along with American Sign Language Barbie). Playmobil’s answer to disability is a boy with a broken leg and an elderly man being pushed in a wheelchair by a young blonde woman. What does this say to children? That only old people need wheels? That childhood disability amounts to a few weeks with your leg in plaster and then goes away?
We asked people to send pictures of toys that reflected disability positively.
When I thought about the level of exclusion that was being carried out by these powerful global brands, the pied pipers of childhood, my rage rolled. I wanted to do something. You see, I was one of those kids. I’d grown up wearing hearing aids and never seen myself represented anywhere. There were no deaf people on TV, in the comics I read or the toys I played with.
So I messaged two friends with children with disabilities: Karen Newell, a former play consultant for Ragdoll Productions who has a son with visual impairment, and the deaf writer Melissa Mostyn who has a daughter with cerebral palsy. We set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account and started using the hashtag #toylikeme.
We asked people to send pictures of toys that reflected disability positively. Someone sent an American Girl doll with a hearing aid, then a bald Moxie doll. Then silence. So we started to make over our own toys, giving them impairments and posting the results online. Like a match to a firework factory, the whole thing went bang. Within days we went viral as parents shared our image of Disney’s Tinker Bell with a cochlear implant, made from a spray-painted popper stud and Fimo.
These parents, from all corners of the world, will have been on a very personal journey. They’ve experienced the shock and grief of finding out that their child is deaf or disabled, the angst of deciding whether to go ahead with a cochlear implant or other invasive procedures, the worry that their child will be excluded from society. An image that marries this emotional journey with the cultural recognisability of Disney provided the perfect cocktail of recognition and inclusion. Suddenly parents were sharing and liking Toy Like Me at a rate of one a minute.
Some small UK toy producers have been quick to answer the campaign call. Arklu, the makers of Lottie dolls, already produce 25% of their dolls with glasses and have agreed to look at ways to make future ranges more disability representative. Makies, the world’s only producers of 3D printed toys, have started producing a series of disability accessories for their existing range of bespoke dolls in the two weeks since we approached them.
But what of the big girls and boys of the toy world? The Legos, Mattels, Playmobils? We’ve tweeted them, we’ve tagged them, we’ve talked about them, we’ve sent them invites. But as yet, they still haven’t come out to play.
For more on the Toy Like Me campaign, visit www.facebook.com/toylikeme.
In May 2015, Toy Like Me started a petition asking Playmobil and Lego to make toys representing disability.
PLEASE POSITIVELY REPRESENT DISABILITY IN YOUR TOYS
Please make this the last Christmas disabled kids are culturally excluded from your much-loved products. Think outside the brick box. Mix it up a bit! Add some brawn, stamina, a few sweat bands, couple of half pipes and some lightning fast wheelchairs.
Oh Lego, where are your basket balling wheelsters? Baseball playing Duplo folk with hearing aids? White cane using Lego Friends off to the gym? In fact, where is your positive disability representation at all?
There are 150 million children with disabilities worldwide. Yet these kids are arriving into a world where, even before they’ve left their mums' laps, they’re excluded or misrepresented by the very industry that exists to create their entertainment, the objects that fuel their development, the starting blocks of life: Toys!
What are you saying to these children with disabilities and their peers by excluding them? Your little plastic bricks and mini figures are loved the world over, we love them too.
Please, Lego, put some wheelchair vroom vroom into the toy box and help generations of kids, (both with and without disabilities), grow up with a more positive attitude to human difference!
We've made this skate park wheelchair free-styling set to give you some ideas and as an offering of friendship. We would love to see you make it for real! You’d make a lot of people very happy, you’d make a lot of kids feel very included and if you say YES we pinky promise to organise a giant conga up and down the aisles of Toys ‘R Us just to show you how much we love you!
The Toy Like Me Team
Toy Like Me is an online campaign calling on the global toy industry to include disability in the toy box. We are parents of children with disabilities and parents who grew up with disabilities ourselves.
The pledge was heard by Lego! in January 2016, Lego announced the release of their first character toy in a wheelchair.
Lego Unveil Wheelchair-Using Minifigure in Response to #ToyLikeMe Campaign
Global toy giants Lego have unveiled their first wheelchair using mini-figure at Nurumberg Toy Fair this week. The figure of a young man using a wheelchair and accompanied by an assistance dog is part of a new Fun in the Park set from Lego and comes after 9 months of lobbying by the #ToyLikeMe group, led by UK journalist and creative disability consultant, Rebecca Atkinson.
Atkinson, who is herself partially deaf and partially sighted, established the online #ToyLikeMe movement in April 2015 to call on the global toy industry to positively represent 150 million disabled children worldwide. With over 30k followers in 45 countries, Atkinson has since enlisted brands such as Playmobil, Orchard Toys, Lottie dolls and now Lego to her ‘toy box revolution’.
“We are beyond happy right now,” says Atkinson of the news. “Lego have just rocked our brick built world and made 150 million disabled kids, their mums, dads, pet dogs and hamsters very very happy. We’re all conga-ing up and down the street chucking coloured bricks like confetti! But on a serious note, this move by Lego is massive in terms of ending cultural marginalisation, it will speak volumes to children, disabled or otherwise, the world over.”
#ToyLIke me are currently crowd funding to continue their work and grow their organisation to celebrate representation of disability across children’s industries. They plan to create an online hub to connect customers with products which represent disability and keep up pressure on the industry. The crowd fund has already raised 20% of it’s target, four days after launching.
“#ToyLikeMe has received no funding to date,” explains Atkinson. “We’ve called in hundreds of favours since establishing, but if we are going to carry on we need to pull our heads out of the toy box and get some real funding to build on what we have already achieved and change the toy box for disabled children today, and those yet to be born.”
Note for editors –
#ToyLikeMe was established in April 2015 by British journalist, Rebecca Atkinson, and parents of children with disabilities who were tired of not being able to find positive disability representation in toys. The group started to makeover toys to give them disabilities and invited followers to send in their creations. The results went viral and have been shared and viewed thousands of times.
There are 770,000 children with disabilities in the UK and 150 million worldwide
A change.org petition calling on Lego to include disabled mini-figures received over 20k signatures. A similar one aimed at Playmobil received over 50k supporters.
#ToyLikeMe has has received global press, TV and radio coverage, including Fox, CNN, Sky, BBC, Guardian, Mail, Upworthy, Dystractify.
#ToyLikeMe has received celebrity backing including comedian Stephen Merchant and Gruffelo author, Julia Donaldson.
Playmobil became the first global brand to back #ToyLikeMe and are working to produce a line of characters that positively represent disability for released in 2016/17
TOYS AND GAMES
Would you like more toy manufacturers to make toys reflecting greater diversity and more disabilities?
Overjoyed with her doll with prosthetic limbs
This little girl was overjoyed to get a doll with prosthetic legs and arms.
Two year old Harmonie-Rose lost her limbs because of meningitis.
A Doll Like Me
I am an avid doll collector (always have been!) and in my previous life (pre-kids), I was a pediatric oncology social worker. Doll-making combines my love of dolls and passion for social work. You see, I have always been disappointed in the lack of diversity in dolls...so, as my mom taught me, if you don't like it...do something about it!
Why Do I Do This?
Even back when I was a social worker, I thought it was so important to have dolls available to the kids 1) because everyone should have something to cuddle, 2) everyone should have a doll that looks like them (especially when you don't have any hair!), and 3) medical play is helpful for psychosocial adjustment. My Master's thesis was about the healing power of play!
Now, I'm a stay-home-mom and I have a pretty good sense of the toy market (because I'm quite sure we own all of them!)
It is my heartfelt belief that dolls should look like their owners AND dolls should be available in all colors, genders, and body types. In an ideal world, limb difference and hand differences would be as accepted as all of the other things that make us unique. Until then, kids might need a little extra coaching...and something that will help them feel proud of who they are. THAT is why I make dolls.
Limb Loss & Limb Difference Dolls:
I recently made a limb difference doll for a darling little girl who wanted a doll that looks like her. I decided to do some research of my own. I realized that there aren't many places where you can custom-order a doll with a limb difference(s) AND have him/her look like the person who loves the doll. I even read an article about how limb difference dolls can help with adjustment in a big way! So where are all of the dolls to help kids do this?!?!
That's where I come into play. I custom-make dolls based on ethnicity, limb (and now hand!) difference, and interests (ex: sports, Hello Kitty, superhero (!), pretty much whatever I can find).
My summer orders have very quickly turned into NEXT WINTER! orders ;) The doll prices are $65, plus shipping (for the ones seen here) BUT there's a twist!
A percentage of the sale of these dolls goes to Camp No Limits...the only camp for kids with limb loss or limb difference (you can check them out online)!
Please be patient as my doll-making evolves. This is brand new for me :) My husband is a child psychologist, so "web-design" isn't our forte...yet...I eventually will have a website.
Know that I really take each little person seriously and I want to make these dolls be as similar to the child who will love them as I possibly can.
Please message me with any questions.
Dolls With Disabilities Escape The Toy Hospital, Go Mainstream
December 18, 2016
Dominika Tamley and her doll "Isebelle" ride the train together in Chicago. Like Dominika, Isebelle has a hearing aid. "She's like a mini-me," Dominika says.
When Dominika Tamley chose "Isebelle," her American Girl doll, she picked a toy whose hair and eye color matched her own. But the 10-year-old is quick to point out that's not the only way the doll resembles the real child who plays with her.
"She's like a mini-me," Tamley explained with pride. "Because she has a hearing aid and I have a hearing aid."
American Girl has for years offered a wide variety of accessories reflecting a range of disabilities. Arm crutches, leg braces, a sporty red wheelchair and allergy-free lunch sets. You can order a doll without hair — like a child with cancer — or one outfitted with a diabetes kit that includes insulin pumps, pens, glucose tablets and a blood sugar monitor.
"The designer who worked on that had Type 1 diabetes, and it was a really personal item for him to create," said Stephanie Spanos, a public relations manager at American Girl. The designers developed the diabetes kit with the input of doctors, nurses and dietitians at American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, Wis., Spanos added. "We introduced that at the very beginning of 2016 and it's been in and out of stock all year."
The "Diabetes Care Kit," designed to fit American Girl dolls, comes with insulin pumps, pens, glucose tablets and a blood sugar monitor.
American Girl dolls, which can cost more than $100, often come with a built-in back story, such as Nellie, the Irish immigrant orphan, or Cécile, the Creole girl growing up in 1850s New Orleans. Some activists remain irked that no American Girl comes with a built-in back story related to a disability. (A petition to add one last year, during the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was unsuccessful.)
Still, more and more mainstream companies are adding characters with disabilities to their roster of toys. Earlier this year, Lego introduced, for the first time, a figure of a little boy in a wheelchair. Significantly, he's not in the hospital — instead, he's part of a city park set, representing people with disabilities out in the world. And in 2013, Toys R Us added its Journey Girls line of dolls, with accessories including wheelchairs and crutches.
Is this good business? Or just good public relations?
"It's not about PR for us," said the chief merchandising officer of Toys R Us, Richard Barry. "Our job as a company is to make sure we have the best assortment for all kids." Barry pointed out that Toys R Us catalog has also started including children with disabilities in its photos of kids playing with the company's toys.
Representation of kids with disabilities was harder to find at a big-box store in the suburbs of Washington D.C., where Rebecca Cokley took me shopping. Cokley is executive director of the National Council on Disability, and the first female little person to have worked in the White House. She's 4 feet 2 inches tall and white, with red hair and freckles. "My family is interracial and interspatial," she said. "My husband's average height and African American. And, so, our kids are biracial dwarf kids."
There were all kinds of toys Cokely liked in the aisles — she's a Lego nerd and a big fan of Batgirl, a character with her own deep connection to the disability community. But it was nearly impossible to find a single toy that represented disability. In the Barbie aisle, we found chef Barbies, vet Barbies and gymnast Barbies.
A Lego figure in a wheelchair was introduced at the 67th International Toy Fair in January 2016. He comes in the "City" set, a community of figures shown playing and working in an urban park setting.
Daniel Karmann/AFP/Getty Images
"Why can't one of these come with a hearing aid?" Cokely wondered. And Mattel has stopped making Becky, Barbie's friend who uses a wheelchair (although you can still find Becky dolls to buy on secondary retail sites online.)
"And look — there's Barbie's inaccessible dream house!" Cokely said. "It's got a working garage, but the elevator is too small for a wheelchair." It would be tough for Becky to come over for a visit.
We had more luck in the Star Wars aisle. Cokely noticed a Luke Skywalker doll that comes with a prosthetic arm. "That counts!" she exclaimed, with a wry aside: "People do tend to claim Vader, but I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."
Aside from Luke, only one other toy (among many hundreds) explicitly represented a disability: Nemo. The friendly orange clownfish from the Pixar movie has one shortened fin, and the store sold a stuffed plush version.
"Both Finding Nemo and Finding Dory have been phenomenal resources for parents with disabilities," she said. "Not only in terms of showing good examples of kids with disabilities, but also the challenges of being that overprotective helicopter parent." She pointed out that some toys – such as My Little Pony — have been embraced by some disability activists, but that so much of the toy section represented missed opportunities.
"Why don't we have any GI Joes that are disabled vets?" Cokely asked. "Think about that, what that would mean to a young boy whose dad's a vet or whose mom's a vet. To see their parents' experience reflected in the toys — that would be massive."
Research by social psychologist Sian Jones of Goldsmith University of London, as well as that of others, shows that all children benefit from playing with toys representing disability — it heightens empathy.
And activist Rebecca Atkinson, who runs the Toy Like Me website in the United Kingdom, told me she'd love it if every toybox included a wheelchair and a seeing-eye dog for children to play with. (Atkinson's website points consumers towards toys that represent disability, and also creates playful images meant to inspire manufacturers, such as princesses with eye patches and scars, and superheros with tracheostomies.
This isn't a niche market, Cokely added. One in four people will experience a disability at some point in their lives. "Everyone has a family member with a disability," she said. "Everyone knows someone with a disability."
And playing with toys in an imagined world where, just like in real life, people walk or use wheelchairs or have hearing aids is a world where kids can imagine other kids — disabled and otherwise — as friends.