I was about 6 years old and my baby dolls arm broke off. That’s ok. No big deal. Now she has special needs. So what? I told my mom that my baby was disabled. She asked if it was because she now only has 1 arm. In a huff I replied, “No mom! She’s blind” and I walked away. True story.
I get that I am probably the exception and not the rule. Most children would want their parents to fix the doll or get them a new one. I was surrounded by children with special needs all the time. My sister, Theresa, had multiple disabilities. So for me, a doll with a missing arm, or blind, or unable to talk, that was no big deal. That was normal. Not just normal, but okay. It was okay to have different abilities in my family, my toys, and my play.
That sense of acceptance is not mainstream. I ask myself, why not? I was introduced to people with differing abilities at a very young age when the brain is working its hardest. 90% of the brain is developed by age 5. What if all children had exposure to people with differing abilities in their early years and how can we make that happen? Toys! Hear me out.
Not all messages children receive are verbal. In fact, 93% of communication is “nonverbal” in nature. It includes the products we market and advertise targeting children. Now, let’s take a look at children’s toys. Roughly 2.8 million children with disabilities (ages 5-15) live in the United States and over 150 million children with disabilities worldwide, and yet they are largely absent from the toy industry. Sometimes it is not the things we say, but the things we don’t say that make the loudest statement. What does this say to children? To be excluded from the toys they play with that it is ok to exclude on the playground in real life? That people with special needs are not important? They are not valued? Like my doll, they are broken and need fixing? They are no use? They have no place?
Play is the work of a child. Children learn through play. All children should be represented in the toys they use to carry out their important work. For children with special needs, seeing themselves reflected in their toys builds confidence and promotes self-esteem. But it doesn’t stop there. It’s not just the child with special needs who benefits from diversity in the toy aisle. For a “typically” developing child a diverse toy box promotes inclusion. It normalizes differences in their real lives.
Picture this, across the country, children all over have access to toys with differing abilities and skills. They can pick up a Barbie with a prosthetic limb or a Lego man in a wheelchair. So it joins their play seamlessly. They engage in the work of children. They play. And play. And play. Their ideas about what it means to be a wheelchair user is formed. They don’t see the wheelchair as a sign of incompetence or sad. They see it for what it is, a way to get from one place to another. It’s okay. It doesn’t need to be fixed. It’s not a strain on society and it’s normal.
In 2015, Rebecca Atkinson, along with two other parents of children with special needs, started the “Toy Like Me” Campaign to urge big box toy manufacturers to positively represent children with special needs and end cultural marginalization. Their campaign went viral with the hashtag #toylikeme. Big box toy retailers are starting to answer the call for diversity among children’s toys. We still have a long way to go but it is a start.
Below is a list of some toys that reflect children with special needs.
Child in wheelchair and adaptive school bus
- American Girl Doll Accessories
wheelchair, diabetes kit, arm crutches, service dog, hearing aid
Wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs
Lego Town City Fun wheelchair minifigure with a companion dog
- Creative Minds
Marvel Education Friends with Diverse Abilities (6 figures)
Block Play People with Differing Abilities
- Discount School Supply
Differently Abled Block People (Set of 6)
- Build A Bear
Hearing aid, diabetes kit
- Special Dolls
Each doll has a different special need
- Lime Tree Kids
Baby Doll with Downs Syndrome
- Vermont Teddy Bear
Bears that Care line; limb difference bear
- A Doll Like Me
- Orchard Toys
Giant Road jigsaw
Woodland Party jigsaw
Just Like Me Doll Accessories: hearing aids, wheelchair, walking crutches, walker, seeing eye dog, dark vinyl glasses