Since my last child was born five years ago, something else has happened in my house. Toys. We started with a few rattles, and over the years the plastic has proliferated into an army of Playmobil figures, a soup of Legos, a sea of cute Sylvanian bunnies. But four weeks ago, I took a step back and looked at our toy box in a new light. A penny dropped. Not a single plastic figure had a wheelchair, hearing aid, white cane, or any type of disability.
There are 770,000 disabled children in the UK and over 150 million worldwide. Yet these children arrive in a world where, even before they leave 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 £2.9billion, but there’s no wheelchair-bound Barbie (Matel’s toe-curler named Share a Smile Becky was dropped years ago with American Sign Language Barbie). Playmobil’s answer to disability is a boy with a broken leg and an elderly man pushed in a wheelchair by a young blonde woman. What does this say to children? That only old people need wheels? That childhood disability equals a few weeks with your leg in a cast and then goes away?
When I thought about the level of exclusion practiced by these powerful global brands, the childhood Pied Pipers, my rage flared. I wanted to do something. You see, I was one of those children. I grew up with hearing aids and never saw myself represented anywhere. There were no deaf people on TV, in the comics I read, or in the toys I played with.
So I sent a message to two friends with children with disabilities: Karen Newell, a former game consultant for Ragdoll Productions who has a visually impaired son, and deaf writer Melissa Mostyn who has a daughter with cerebral palsy. We have created a Facebook page and a Twitter account and started using the #toylikeme hashtag.
We asked people to send photos of toys that positively reflected disability. Someone sent an American Girl doll with a hearing aid, then a bald Moxie doll. Then silence. So we started making our own toys, giving them deficiencies and posting the results online. Like a match against a fireworks factory, everything exploded. Within days, we went viral as parents shared our image of Disney’s Tinkerbell with a cochlear implant, made from a spray-painted snap and Fimo.
These parents, who came from all over the world, will have experienced a very personal journey. They have experienced the shock and grief of learning that their child is deaf or disabled, the anguish of deciding to go ahead with a cochlear implant or other invasive procedures, the worry that their child will be excluded of the society. An image that marries this emotional journey with Disney’s cultural recognition provided the perfect cocktail of recognition and inclusion. Suddenly parents were sharing and loving Toy Like Me at the rate of one per minute.
Some small UK toy producers have been quick to respond to the campaign’s call. Arklu, the maker of Lottie dolls, already produces 25% of its dolls with glasses and is committed to exploring ways to make future ranges more representative of disability. Makies, the world’s only producers of 3D printed toys, began producing a series of disabled accessories for their existing range of bespoke dolls within two weeks of our approach.
But what about the big girls and boys in the toy world? Lego, Mattel, Playmobil? We tweeted them, we tagged them, we talked about them, we sent them invitations. But as of now, they still haven’t come out to play.