Rebecca Atkinson: Children should be able to play with a toy that reflects their deafness or disability

Posted on April 24, 2015

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Rebecca Atkinson writes about why Deaf and disabled children need to see toys like them and how a new online campaign is calling on the toy industry for more inclusion and representation of disabilities in the toy box.

How do you give a Deaf or disabled child self esteem? A sense of confidence in who they are? Show them it’s OK to be like them. Show them a ‘toy like them’.

When I was growing up in the 80s I never saw a doll like me. Although my favourite Barbie had brown hair like I did and clothes that looked like mine, a RaRa skirt, some knee high white socks, she wasn’t really like me because I had two hearing aids and she didn’t.

In the real world, there were people like me. In the doll world, I didn’t exist.

I went to mainstream school. I was the only Deaf kid in the class. I wore my hair down over my ears and pretended not to be different from the rest.

I never saw Deaf people on TV. There were no Deaf adults in my life and none of my toys had hearing aids. Deafness was invisible in everything I saw.

Then when I was a teenager something happened that was remarkable enough for me to remember it 25 years later.

I was reading a newspaper when I saw an article about global toy giant Mattel, who were bringing out an American Sign Language Barbie in the USA.

She had glossy hair, a pretty face and hands moulded into the shape of an ‘I love you’ sign. She came with a book of ASL signs and a teacher’s white board.

She was ‘ASL Teacher Barbie’. I didn’t know if she was meant to be Deaf herself or a hearing teacher of Deaf children, but in my eyes she was just ‘Deaf Barbie’.

Sign language Barbie

Sign language Barbie

At 15, I was now way too old to play with Barbie and at that time ‘Deaf Barbie’ wasn’t available in the UK so I never actually got to meet her.

But I remember the feeling even knowing about her gave me – if a huge multinational toy company like Mattel thought ASL was cool enough to make a Deaf Barbie, then being Deaf must be OK.

The doll with Deafness – it was a simple thing – but a huge and mainstream, positive affirmation of who and what I was.

Mattel have now discontinued ‘Deaf Barbie’ and whilst you can still find her online she comes with a hefty price tag of between £60-£120. Despite 25 years passing, there are no other affordable dolls like her.

The toy world is still overwhelmingly hearing and non-disabled. What does that say to Deaf and disabled children? That they aren’t worth it? That they’re invisible in the toys they play with? That they’re invisible in society?

Aside from dolls, there are a limited range of toys representing disability in existence but they tend to be either part of sets relating to medical situations, toys hospitals for example, or specialist items like dummy processors available from Cochlear Implant manufacturers which can be attached to a teddy or doll.

There is still a howling gap in the mainstream high street toy market for dolls and toys which positively reflect disability to children. Toys which tell children it’s good to be them, that give them self esteem and body confidence and something to play out their disability experiences through.

A teddy bear with hearing aids

A teddy bear with hearing aids

Last week a group of Mums began an online Twitter and Facebook campaign to get the toy industry to take note and produce more toys which reflect and represent disability and Deafness in a positive way.

#toylikeme

The ‘Toy Like Me’ campaign has been spearheaded by Deaf mum Melissa Mostyn, whose daughter has a disability and uses a wheelchair.

“If we are going to teach children, both with and without disabilities, positive attitudes,” says Mostyn, “We need to have visible representation in the mainstream toys that are available on the high street. Attitude towards disability starts in formative years.”

The ‘Toy Like Me’ campaign is calling on social media users to join the campaign by sharing images of toys that reflect Deafness and disability positively, toys that have been homemade or altered to give them disabilities and letters from children with disabilities calling on the toy industry to make more ‘toys like them’, with the hashtag #toylikeme.

More about the campaign can be found here – https://www.facebook.com/toylikeme

#toylikeme

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