Why we need toys with disabilities

For those of you who don’t already know, Toy Like me is a campaign that was started earlier this year by three mums who had children with different disabilities.  The purpose was to campaign for big toy companies, such as Mattel, Playmobil and Lego, to start making toys with disabilities.  One with a walking stick, another in a wheelchair and another with a guide dog, for example.  Really, it’s the next step from introducing an autistic character on an online Sesame Street storybook.

When I was growing up these toys were nowhere to be found, and until I’d heard of this campaign I hadn’t given this much thought.  Why?  Because children take toys for granted.  They don’t question such things as whether they’re truly representative of what goes on in reality!

And that’s the problem.

Children grow up playing with plenty of toys and unknowingly learn about the world as they do.  They learn that trains run on tracks, that firemen drive fire engines and that Barbie and Ken are the perfect image of a man and woman…

Wait…what?  Every girl should grow up to look like Barbie and every boy should grow up to look like Ken?

I know.  Ridiculous, right?

Yet these are the kinds of images children are receiving through toys that are influencing their understanding of the world.

So the solution is to make the toy box more representative, and this is exactly what Toy Like Me are trying to do.

Until now, representations of disability in toys have focused on old people in wheelchairs and a boy with a broken leg.  In hospital.  So children are growing up with toys that are very unrepresentative of disability.  This means that they don’t see disability as normal, as part of life, because the vast majority of disabilities aren’t represented in the toy box.  Is it any wonder they grow up not knowing how to interact with a disabled person and seeing them as different to everybody else?

Children are learning about the world at a fast rate.  When they’re young they have no judgement on what they learn because they don’t have anything to compare it to.  What they see and hear is just how the world is, and they don’t have any problem with it.

It’s when they grow into teenagers that the judgments start to appear, when they start comparing what they see now with what they’ve already learnt about the world.  If this is the first time they encounter a disabled person can they really be blamed for not knowing what that means, for seeing them as different and not knowing how to interact with them?

What about disabled children?  If they don’t see any toys with disabilities in the toy box how are they supposed to learn how they fit into the world when the message inherent in the lack of toys with disabilities is that they don’t?  This is at the core of the Toy Like Me campaign, that disabled children should have toys they can identify with, toys they want to be like when they grow up.  Is it such a stretch to have a Barbie in a wheelchair or a doll with a cochlear implant so that disabled children have this?

Would having toys with disabilities have made a difference to me when I was younger?  Yes.  For one thing, I might not have felt so different at school if I’d grown up seeing disability as part of the norm.  For another, other kids might not have been so unsure of me if, again, they’d grown up seeing disability as part of the norm.

I think that while having toys with disabilities in the toy box is the way forward it needs to be approached in the right way.  Playmobil have the right idea.  The only big toy company to respond to the campaign so far, they have announced plans for a new set of characters that includes disabled characters.  I hope, as this suggests, that disabled characters will be part of a set including other, able-bodied characters.  This is the key to teaching young children that disabled people are part of society and are not separate.  It also avoids the obvious outcome where only parents of disabled children buy toys with disabilities, defeating one of the main purposes of introducing them!

Toy Like Me are still waiting for the other big players in the toy industry – Lego, Mattel and Hasbro – to follow suit.  To find out what they’re up to and keep up with their progress like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter!

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How Disabled Pupils Can Take Design & Technology Subjects

A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of encouraging disabled pupils to take Art as a school subject if they wish to do so.  I now want to talk about another group of school subjects that involve a very physical element that should also be made available to disabled pupils: Design & Technology.  D&T covers a range of subjects such as product design, food and nutrition and textiles.

Everyone at my school had to take a D&T subject for GCSE; everyone, that is, except me.  It was felt that because I wouldn’t be able to do much of the physical side of things myself it wouldn’t be my own work and therefore there’d be no point.

At the time I agreed, but having since been to college, university and now living independently I’m not so sure of this view.

D&T does heavily rely on physical input, much of which I may not have been able to do myself, but could I have taken a slightly different approach so that the work was still my own?

I think the answer to that is yes, and here’s how.  Since leaving school I’ve learnt a very valuable skill: how to direct people (remember my blog about what it means to be independent?).  In the 8 years since I left school I’ve learnt to direct people in many areas of my life to do things for me, in exactly the way I want them done.  I do this on a daily basis with my PA’s, I’ve sat numerous exams that have involved dictating mathematical equations in great detail (and I did A Level Maths and an Economics degree, so the maths could be quite advanced) and I even use this skill when I’m out socially and need a hand with something specific.

How does this relate to D&T?  Simple.  If a disabled student can’t physically complete the task themselves, as long as they have the knowledge of how to do it they should be able to direct a support worker to do it for them, just as I directed scribes by dictation in maths exams.  This isn’t, and shouldn’t be, as easy as it sounds.  Directing someone to do a technical task such as those involved in D&T requires a high level of skill because very precise directions need to be given, including instructions for things you may just do automatically if you’re doing it yourself.  The person physically doing the task, therefore, should just be considered the pupil’s hands and should not be contributing their own thoughts on how the task should be completed.  This way they are not influencing the outcome in any way with what they think they should be doing.  If it goes wrong (as long as it doesn’t start a fire) then that’s OK, because it’s the pupil’s responsibility to give precise instructions as to how the task should be carried out, and this is how they can learn.

The key to D&T, just like anything else, is the mind.  If a disabled pupil has the intellectual ability to create something, to understand how elements need to come together for it to work, and most importantly to direct somebody else as to exactly how they want every task executed then it is still their creation and can therefore still be assessed as their own work.

Imagine someone like Stephen Hawking, a scientist who has the potential to envision the most advanced invention of our time but can’t physically bring it into being himself.  Should he not take D&T, not learn how things work, and therefore never gain the knowledge that could spark the idea for that invention?

Or should he be encouraged to take D&T and learn to direct a support worker to do the physical elements for him, exactly as he instructed?

School is about pupils developing their individual skills and exploring what they’re capable of.  That goes for disabled pupils too.  If they have a disability that limits their physical ability to complete certain elements of a D&T subject they can develop an equally valuable skill, one they will most likely rely on in the future, by learning how to direct others.