Play is the best way to offer inclusion, says Karen Kewell, co-founder of #ToyLikeMe, an organisation that was set up to call the global toy industry to account on its failure to represent the 150 million disabled children in its toys. This year, Lego launched its first ever wheelchair-using figure, which has been directly credited to #ToyLikeMe campaign. As Part of our diversity in Play campaign, we are delighted to introduce Karen as our latest guest blogger.
In the Beginning
#ToyLikeMe® was established in April 2015 after journalist and creative consultant Rebecca Atkinson and I noticed the lack of disability representation in toys. We had always been interested in the way these industries represent disabled people, but this was the first time they had noticed the lack of representation in the toy industry.
I was a former Ragdoll Productions Researcher and play consultant, and orginally launched #ToyLikeMe on Facebook and Twitter to call on the global toy industry to start representing the 150 million disabled children worldwide.
I now live in York and have a son, Fred with a visual impairment. Rebecca, who is partially deaf and partially sighted herself, wrote for the Guardian about the beginnings of #ToyLikeMe and the impetus behind it. You can read the full article here .
They say a picture speaks a thousand words and with 150 million children worldwide with a disability we wanted to speak to everyone!
We began making-over toys to give them disabilities and asked other parents to do the same. The results soon went viral and our story was shared on news outlets around the world.
‘…when a child plays with a toy that is differently-abled, they will show more compassion, understanding and acceptance when they meet a child with a disability.’
The customised toys not only show and tell, they also inspire creative families to do their own too. We’ve had so many creative ideas shared via #ToyLikeMe it has created a small industry of its own.
Harnessing 3D technology
We spotted a company in the UK who make bespoke dolls using 3D printing. We contacted them and asked if they would produce hearing aids and a white cane for their dolls. To our delight they agreed and within two weeks they produced the world’s first 3D printed dolls with disabilities in response to #ToyLikeMe. We were so happy we fell off our toy box and so did a lot of other kids and big kids. The story also made the global press.
Focusing on the big toy manufacturers!
Our next tactic was to focus on one toy manufacturer: we decided on PlayMobil.
We gave some Playmobil figures waggy-tailed guide dogs and whizzy wheelchairs and started a change.org petition asking Playmobil to produce the figures for real. Fifty thousand people signed in a week and the lovely folk at Playmobil said yes! With creative consultation from Rebecca, they are currently developing products inspired by #ToyLikeMe for release in 2016/17. Whoopeee!
Next up, we started a change.org petition calling on Lego which has been signed by over 20,000 people. Sadly, Lego didn’t respond to us directly. However, in January this year, Lego unveiled their first ever wheelchair-using mini-figure at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. The UK press attributed #ToyLikeMe’s influence to this product and the story was carried worldwide. We were very happy to see this product at long last. Only time can tell, but where the big toy companies go, many tend to follow! The wheelchair has been very well received and we hope it is the start of incidental representation across all their sets.
In the spring we Crowd-funded for development costs for a website as we needed a place online so people can connect with the products available. This has just been launched! Now, all our hours of searching for the best representative toys is there in all its playful glory. Who knows, maybe we will shame, I mean inspire, other big toy companies to think about representing all children’s abilities.
The play sector holds the key to championing differently-abled children
The play sector holds the key to championing the ideas and values that underpin #ToyLikeMe. If children play with and see images of children who are differently abled, it becomes the norm. Therefore inclusion becomes the norm. We are currently working with a University to provide academic research for this, to show that when a child plays with a toy that is differently-abled, they will show more compassion, understanding and acceptance when they meet a child with a disability. Importantly they won’t feel just pity.
Here are three practical things that local play organisations can do to help be more welcoming to diff:abled children, particularly children with visual impairments:
- Hide and seek – Children with disabilities are often invisible to local services so I would recommend you contact your local Sensory team and see if there are any children who would like to attend your play centre. I can guarantee there will be. Their parents might need a bit of persuading. You can help by asking directly what small adaptations could be made to welcome children with disabilities. For sight loss it is wonderful what a bit of paint and washi tape can do.
- Awareness – Grab a pair of Sim Specks (glasses that simulate blindness and visual impairments, like these), a blind fold and take a walk in their shoes. Take a slice of common sense and walk around your setting and make minor adaptations. Arrange a training day, invite me or someone like me or Positive Eye to come and share with you some adapted games and crafts you can do together. Promise you will have fun and learn loads!
- Makeover some toys and send them to #ToyLikeMe
If you have questions for Karen, or would like to share your own experiences and ideas, please just use our comments section below.