18% of the UK population are deaf or disabled, and this figure is on the rise due to people living longer. Every man, woman, and child is likely to see disability on the street every day. If toys are to educate about the world around us today, shouldn’t their manufacturers acknowledge deaf and disabled children too?
Take my daughter Isobel. She is seven and one of the cheeriest little girls I know. (Don’t take my word for it: her school says the same.)
Despite being a happy-go-lucky princess who loves sign-singing, dancing, sparkly shoes and tutus, Isobel has shown little to no interest in conventional High Street toys. She has never embraced her only doll, a Bratz figure given to her as a Christmas present. Indeed, she has pushed it away with such regularity and force that her younger, non-disabled, brother has quit trying to get her to play with it.
Of course, Isobel isn’t your average little girl. As someone living with cerebral palsy and restricted mobility, she is much happier relating to other disabled children (who, incidentally, are a regular feature on her favourite television show, Cbeebies’ Something Special). With its cartoonish, defiantly non-disabled shape, that Bratz doll is the last thing she wants to aspire to.
Before anyone opines that it is a matter of taste, I can categorically state that it is not. In April last year, I plonked a giant teddy bear in her buggy with its legs in splints that she’d outgrown. Upon seeing it, my six-year-old daughter was moved, and gave me a massive hug. (This is significant. Isobel has no speech and signs very little, and had never shown such emotion before.) A lollipop-stick Kay-walker that I made just like hers, to go with a Moxie doll, triggered a similar reaction.Those experiments were among the earliest prototypes created for Toy Like Me, the campaign for better representation of disability in mainstream toys.
Started by a group of parents who were either themselves deaf and/or disabled, had disabled children of their own – or both – it initially worked by customising toys representing disability in a fun way, and sharing the photos on a designated Facebook page and Twitter with the hashtag #toylikeme.
Together we kept busy calling upon the biggest UK and global toy manufacturers – Mega Bloks, Mattel, LEGO, Playmobil, Fisher-Price and Little Tikes to name a few – to remedy their current ranges by adding positive representation of disability to the toy shop shelves. Rather than making it our business to produce the toys regularly, we wanted them to make it theirs.
Of course, we were aware of toys representing disability already on the market. However before Toy Like Me, you had to do the legwork, or go via medical companies like Cochlear, who supply dummy CI processors for your child to attach to their teddy.
Otherwise, the disabled toy figure you were most likely to see on the High Street either occupied a sterile medical setting, or was nearing the end of their lives. This is surely a major disincentive for assuring a Deaf or disabled child of their place in mainstream society.
Where were the wheelchair-using pirates, the disfigured princesses, the fairies in arm-splints, the deaf cheerleaders, the blind Action Men that would boost the body confidence of Isobel and 150 million other children like her worldwide?
Where were the toys that would give them something to play out their own, real-life, experiences through?They would assert to the world that not only do deaf and disabled children have aspirations of their own – but are just as fun to play with as non-disabled children. They would provide an excellent opportunity for non-disabled children to learn the value of living alongside their disabled peers as an irrefutable part of humanity, rather than an abomination. Their novelty value would come from the fact that a child is not born with an attitude, but learns it through the influence of others: specifically, adults.
I am honoured to have been one of Toy Like Me’s founders, working with deafblind journalist Rebecca Atkinson (who I must credit the initial concept to) and play consultant Karen Newell – whose son is registered blind – to raise awareness of the issue worldwide. As its social media manager, I’m proud to have fuelled its exponential growth with the first celebrity retweet – by the disfigured model and disability rights campaigner Katie Piper – in just three days following the official launch, quickly followed by comedian Rory Bremner and CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell.I have never had a project snowball quite like Toy Like Me. The Facebook page alone went from 200 ‘likes’ in 10 days to over 24,000 in four months, with endorsements from not just the aforesaid celebrities but also Glynis Barber, Eastenders actor Rita Simons’ husband Trey, actor Josette Simon, amputee model Kelly Knox (winner of Britain’s Missing Top Model), author Julia Donaldson, comedy writer and actor Stephen Merchant, and many, many more.
Parents from scores of countries including Britain, Israel, Turkey, Singapore, America, France, Italy, and Japan have shared pictures of their own customised toys with the hashtag #toylikeme on Facebook and Twitter. Some have even started their own businesses online. Our first Change.org petition, which addressed Playmobil, quickly amassed over 50,000 signatures and resulted in the multinational giant agreeing to consult us on a new range of disabled toys.
Media from across the world took notice (and still are, as I type). As co-founder I particpated in TV interviews with BBC’s See Hear – where I got to meet the world’s first ever set of disabled dolls (created by Makies), including one with a facial disfigurement named after me, in honour of that first, meteoric, celebrity retweet – and the American TV network station CBS (clip here).Due to heavy parent-caring responsibilities, I had to step down earlier this year. The decision was not taken lightly and I am grateful to both Rebecca Atkinson and Karen Newell for their support.
Toy Like Me is one of the most singular and greatest successes I have ever contributed to. I couldn’t have wished for a better, or more novel, project to be part of. That a major website has been launched since my leaving – offering a one-stop resource for buying disabled toys online – is exciting news indeed and I, and I’m sure Isobel would, wish my hitherto collaborators, supporters, and everyone else involved in the campaign, every success in advancing the future of toys.