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!