Watching television one day as a child, Rebecca Atkinson saw something that made her sit up straight with excitement. Like many British children, she loved the television show Blue Peter and watched it religiously. But today, she noticed something different on her favorite show: one of the presenters had a hearing aid, just like hers.
“I excitedly called my mum in to tell her that there was somebody like me on TV. I thought, if she’s got a hearing aid, I can be like her when I grow up, because kids want to be on TV like their idols.”
Rebecca’s excitement was dashed when her mum explained it wasn’t a hearing aid, but a radio piece in the presenter’s ear. It was disappointing, but not surprising. Because it wasn’t just television, it was everywhere: there just weren’t children like her. It wasn’t until adulthood that she was able to put the sense of isolation she felt into words, and realize that she’d been looking to see herself reflected back by the wider world.
“Those memories were me looking for some kind of recognition of my experience in the world around me, and it just wasn’t there.”
Later, a career in journalism and children’s television further confirmed Rebecca’s conviction that disability was missing from the mainstream. But it wasn’t until around two years ago, when her children were small and she was knee deep in toys, that she had a “lightbulb moment”, realizing disability was missing from the toybox, too.
Along with a couple of friends, Rebecca got to work. She created the Toy Like Me Facebook page and posted pictures of a Tinkerbell doll with a cochlear implant she’d fashioned with modeling clay. The pictures went viral, and the group gained thousands of members overnight. When Rebecca’s online petition asking for toy representation was signed by 50,000 people, manufacturers noticed. Playmobil announced plans for a set of figures with disabilities. The Irish-made Lottie brand got on board, pledging to make a doll with a cochlear implant like Rebecca’s homemade Tinkerbell, and a few months later, Lego released a wheelchair-using figure, attributing it to the #ToyLikeMe campaign.
Two years later, Rebecca’s still waiting for Playmobil. “I’m at that stage where I’m ready to start shouting about that,” she says. However, Lottie’s Mia doll has hit the stores, and Rebecca says the wildlife photographer doll–who just happens to have a cochlear implant–might be her dream doll.
“I love her, I’m very proud of her. If I’d have been given a doll like that, I would’ve been very happy.”
Although she had a lot of friends growing up, Rebecca was self-conscious about being deaf. At school she wore her hair down to hide her hearing aids. She fantasized about a deaf classmate joining her school, so she wouldn’t be the only one.
When she was seventeen, Rebecca was diagnosed with Usher’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that had caused her deafness. The condition also causes retinitis pigmentosa, and Rebecca was told she’d lose her vision. “It was quite a big blow,” she says. She left school: she had better things to do. She went on to study film and TV, and then moved to London to work at the BBC.
Eleven years ago, her sight worsened.
“I was living in central London, and it was very busy. I didn’t have a guide dog or a cane because I was in denial. I didn’t want to look blind.” She left her job to freelance, eventually moving to Norwich on the east coast to bring up her children, who are now nine and seven. Her vision has narrowed to a tunnel, and she gets around with help from her guide dog, Ruby.
Now, she works full time on her campaign. Looking for other ways to get her message out there, Rebecca’s exploring the possibility of a television show, working directly with children, and a longitudinal study with Goldsmiths, University of London.
Dr. Siân Jones, a research fellow at Goldsmiths, is hoping to lead the study. Siân carries out studies with Playmobil figures, harnessing children’s imagined play to measure their attitudes to ethnicity and disability after they’ve played with a figure with an unfamiliar identity.
With a group of 600 children, Siân measured the effect of playing with toys with different disabilities. She discovered that after three minutes of play, children spoke about disability in a more positive way, and displayed less anxiety about interacting with people with disabilities.
Siân, who has cerebral palsy, discovered when she worked directly with the children: the positive effects were increased. “It was an added kind of booster effect on top, it was an unexpected finding from that but it was nonetheless a good one.”
Siân is hoping to begin work on a year-long study examining children’s attitudes when disabled toys are left in their classrooms.
“At the moment, we’re waving goodbye to the children after about 20 minutes of testing, with no idea how long these effects last. The longitudinal study will allow us to put toys in the classroom which is much more realistic, and to test over the course of the year to see whether there’s any change in attitude.”
Growing up, Siân says she was resigned to the fact she wasn’t represented. “I just didn’t expect to see any [representation]. My contact with other children with disabilities was very, very low as a child and so there was some isolation around that.”
Seeing toys that reflect themselves is important for children’s identity, Siân says. “If the toys represent [children with disabilities] it shows that they matter as a part of society. The toys act as role models: Barbie science dolls and the Lego scientists dolls show girls that they can be in that role, but disabled toys are missing. That presents quite a powerful message about the position of children and adults with disabilities in society: they’re just not there, and they can’t do these things.”
Siân believes disability is the “poor cousin” of ethnicity. “In most toy sets now you will see the male and the female represented in different ways, and there’s multiple ethnic characters, but disability is still not very well represented in the toy box.”
Siân adds that it’s important for every child, disabled or not, to see representation. “It’s important for children to have exposure to disabilities. It teaches important skills about empathy and seeing the world from somebody else’s perspective.”
“It’s important for children to have exposure to disabilities. It teaches important skills about empathy and seeing the world from somebody else’s perspective.”
Toys can help children work out the similarities between them and other children with disabilities, and through her research, Siân’s discovered the importance of helping children explore disability on their own terms.
She remembers one child playing with a legless Playmobil figure. “He played about thirty seconds of football before realizing that it wasn’t going to happen, at least, not in the way he was doing it. That just gave him a safe space to think about the rules of that game, and how he could play football with a child with no legs in a wheelchair.”
Siân and Rebecca both mention the strength of imagination, the complex worlds and fantasies children create for their toys to inhabit. Toy manufacturers are well aware of this, creating mainstream toys with magical powers and fantasy features. But when it comes to disability, they fall back on stereotypes and everyday reality: Playmobil’s existing wheelchair-using characters are a child in a wheelchair or an elderly man. Lego’s wheelchair figure is a boy in a grey chair.
“That doesn’t speak anything to the child that is disabled,” Rebecca says. “With characters that don’t have a disability, we don’t have a problem saying, that character can be anything. But when it comes to disability we put restrictions that character. People will say, we can’t make a wheelchair fly, because in real life wheelchairs can’t fly, and we might offend somebody.”
Rebecca would like to see toy brands share responsibility for representation. “I would like to see a better peppering across the whole market: Lottie have the hearing aid doll, Barbie could bring out a wheelchair doll, let’s say Playmobil have a guide dog. Saying these things should be visible around the toy industry doesn’t mean one brand has to do it all.”
The Legos, Mattels and Playmobils of the world wield enormous influence, she says. “If a big brand recognises you, that is powerful. When big brands do inclusive things they send out a message that’s more powerful than they realize.”
“When big brands do inclusive things they send out a message that’s more powerful than they realize.”
“Toy Like Me is the first time where somebody has stood up and told these big brands that they have a moral responsibility to represent diversity to children, and to include disabled children in their products. [Big brands] hold the power to promote massive social change, and it’s time we saw that happen.”