Following our successful Creating music through technology project funded by the Sobell Foundation in partnership with Decibels last month, Eloise Garland and I were invited back to The PACE Centre for more fun last week!
This time round, we were contracted to run six 90-minute sessions as part of Playaway, a non-profit charity which runs a two-week specialist holiday playscheme for disabled school-age children every summer.
Our brief was more flexible. We no longer had an obligation to work with the Subpac vest, and Playaway asked us to use their theme this year, which was Space. The sessions needed to be self-contained, as we were working with a different group every day. We took advantage of this by playing around with the layered structure of the workshops as we went along.
Otherwise, the aim remained the same: to explore emotions, personality traits and moods through music, and then feed the new appreciation into visual art.
Given the theme, Space Oddity was a natural choice for the visual art segment. It was released 50 years ago – in the same year as the first moon landings – and to make it even more special, there was even a cover from a real-life astronaut. It had a pleasant ambience that I believed the children would take to.
Again, I had to show them first how it would be done! In the photo below, I’m actually painting a tiny figure disappearing into the Milky Way while the video is playing.
Because I knew the song quite well, I was able to disperse with the Subpac and properly get into my stride. In other sessions I’ve also painted a lone astronaut floating in space towards the Moon, and a metallic comet hurtling through the sky!
Next, the children discussed imagined characteristics of certain planets with Eloise – Mars, Jupiter, Neptune – and created short, basic compositions with various instruments based on each, led by Eloise on the violin.
Thus primed, the children were able to return to Space Oddity with a newly enlightened perspective and paint more imaginatively and freely while, again, Chris Hadfield did his acoustic guitar riff on the big screen.
The results were astonishing in their variety and confidence! The children clearly showed an aptitude for independent thinking and for owning their feelings.
Sadly, I’m not able to join Eloise in the second week of Playaway due to a prior commitment. I’m certain though that my replacement, illustrator Tim Reedy, is more than capable of generating his own cosmic fun with the children – and I look forward to seeing them all again very soon.
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.
WENDOVER, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE – Following the popularity of her blog, The Mostyn-Thomas Journal, Melissa Mostyn will be launching her first e-book, My Daughter And I, on Thursday 24th April, 2014.
The book charts the developmental progress of Melissa’s daughter and first child Isobel, who has cerebral palsy and associated disabilities, right from the day of her birth up to the present day via blog posts drawn from the Journal, and includes chapters that were never published online.
“The point of my blog was to help me make sense of what was happening to Isobel,” explains Melissa. “At the time there was so much going on I couldn’t absorb each new piece of information properly. But I had to find a way to keep moving on, so I could be strong and be there for her as her mum.”
What makes My Daughter And I unusual is the fact it is written from the perspective of a deaf person.
“I am pre-lingually deaf,” says Melissa, “and have no memory of having hearing. So I cannot say I have a hearing loss. I had worked with people with disabilities before I became a parent, so I probably brought a rather divergent attitude to the table.”
Melissa is open about the fact that she blogged primarily for her own benefit: “Of course I was reaching out. That’s what you do when you find yourself very isolated in your own personal turmoil. But what I didn’t expect was the response my blog would get.”
Indeed, soon after starting her blog, Melissa found herself receiving messages of support from people she didn’t think would have much interest: childless people, adults with disabilities, parents of non-disabled children, members of the Deaf Community, people whose parents had disabilities of their own.
“My readers came from all walks of life,” she says, “which, in retrospect, shouldn’t be that surprising perhaps.
“When I look back at those posts, I realise that somewhere in there is an universal message that they can all relate to, and I think it’s to do with the human condition and what it’s capable of in times of adversity.”
Personal circumstances prevented Melissa from continuing the blog, but she wasn’t prepared to give up.
“I became a single parent of two very young children fairly recently, and was too busy to keep blogging,” she explains. “However, by then I had three years’ worth of material to draw from; material that I’d worked so hard to write. I couldn’t let this go to waste.”
Hence the idea of the book. “Not only that,” Melissa continues, “but Isobel was still evolving. There was a concurrence between her child development and her evolving disabilities, ensuring there was no knowing what to expect, and I had to keep adjusting as we went along. The new chapters in the book is a way of reinforcing the sense of a continuing journey.”
Although the book’s title purposefully highlights Isobel’s starring role, Melissa stresses that it also explores the broader family dynamic: “I cannot deny the huge impact Isobel’s disabilities have had on the household as a whole. Building in the arrival of her baby brother Benedict, and the areas of interest I developed afterwards, was just as important a way of showing how we all adapted to being a deaf and disabled family.”
My Daughter And I is self-published. Its launch on Kindle will be celebrated with a small event by invitation only in London on the same day. Press enquiries can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org
My Daughter And I: a story about child development, parenting, love and disability, out on Kindle 24th April 2014.
In advance of the book’s release, The Mostyn-Thomas Journal will go offline on 6th April 2014.
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