Rebecca Atkinson: Give your child an open mind for Christmas – buy them a disabled toy

Posted on December 20, 2016

With Christmas becoming ever commercial how do you square the tree-high piles and bursting stocking of material goods with teaching children the traditional values of Christmas; empathy, compassion and goodwill? Is it possible to kill two birds one stone and buy an open mind for Christmas?

2016 has been a big year for diversity in the toy box with Lego issuing the world’s first mini-figure with a wheelchair in February to the delight of parents on social media, followed by the inclusion of disabled characters in the Lego Dimensions ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ computer game in November.

Behind the scenes at Playmobil, work is underway developing a line of disabled characters for release in 2017 following a 50,000-strong petition by parent-led group #ToyLikeMe and the American Lammilly doll, billed as the ‘normal sized’ Barbie, has recently announced the launch of an upcoming wheelchair accessory.

Until now the toy industry has made the assumption that disabled toys are for disabled children and therefore represent a niche market – which can perhaps explain the lack of representation in the toy box to date.

It’s a commercial industry and these are minority markets, leaving 150 million disabled children worldwide left out by the very industries which exist to entertain and educate.

Research has found that disabled children are at an increased rick of low self esteem. Professor of Disability Research at the University of East Anglia, Tom Shakespeare explains that “low self esteem can occur because of the reactions these children face in daily life and the lack of positive role models in our culture. If they never see themselves in stories, films, toys, then they may feel like permanent outsiders in the world.”

When a disabled child sees themselves represented in mainstream toys and media, they see that they matter, that they are important in society and are part of the fun and games. This will arguably raise self esteem and will have a positive effect on development.

When mainstream brands leave out disability they are sending out the subliminal message that disabled people don’t matter, that they belong on the sidelines of society. But is it possible that the benefits of disabled toys are further reaching than just growing self esteem in children with disabilities? Can they grow open minds in non-disabled children?

Harper Beckham, daughter of David and Victoria was pictured in August carrying a toy wheelchair through LA airport, prompting The Daily Mail’s Sarah Vine to run a column asking ‘if it’s healthy to give a child a disability doll’. A question that Goldsmith University academic Sian Jones has been asking in her recent research at London’s Science Museum. Jones, a psychologist, looked at the attitudes of non-disabled children to their disabled peers before and after playing with disabled toys.

“There was a positive effect on interactions,” said Dr Jones in a recent BBC interview. “We measured children’s intentions to make friends before and after they’d played with disabled characters and we found that children were more willing to make friends with a child with a disability after having played with a wheelchair using toy.”

The study which involved hundreds of children found attitudinal change after just three minutes of play which Jones argues, could be “profound because it represents a cheap and easy intervention to combat prejudice.”

Disabled kids need to grow positive self esteem. Non-disabled children need to grow positive attitudes. All good solid arguments for increasing representation in the toy box, but how do you square these liberal sentiments with the commercial demands of the market?

Businesses need profit and so pitch to the middle ground for maximum sales. In the last year there has been a general shift in the toy industry towards more diversity. As well as the advent of disabled toys, Barbie released a newly modified line of figures with greater ethnic diversity and curvy body shapes and Disney, a new princess, Moana with darker skin and a more realistic body type then previous Disney characters.

But is this just capitalism’s pursuit of reinventing the markets, invigorating tired brands? Or does it represent genuine brand commitment to teaching children by stealth to grow a more open minded generation?

When you dig into the bottom of the toy box, past all the fantasy and dreams, Christmas wish lists and childhood memories, you find the wheels of big business turning. They make what sells and we consume what they make.

No-one knows how big the disabled toy market really is because it’s unchartered waters. If as Jones’ research is finding, we can educate generations of children to have a more open mind by playing with diverse toys, the market could far outstrip the perceived ‘niche’ that is disabled children and their families. Every nursery, childcare setting and primary school in the world could present as a consumer.

Rebecca Atkinson is a journalist and creative consultant specialising in the representation of disability in children’s industries. She is the founder of #ToyLikeMe and listed in the 2016 Power100 list of influential disabled people for her work in this field.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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