As The Civic, Barnsley hosts Toy Box Tales, celebrating disability representation in toys, its creator Rebecca Atkinson shares the story behind the images and how they helped to change the global toy industry for millions of children.
In 2015, I was tidying up my children’s bedroom when I noticed there were no disabled characters amongst the Sylvanian Families, Playmobil and Lego figures which were scattered across the floor. My children were 5 and 7 at the time, and disability was very much on the agenda in our family as I had recently been matched with my first guide dog after losing some of my vision. I had been looking for resources which reflected our experience. There was nothing. No books with guide dogs, no toys with white canes and no TV shows with disabled parents. Yet this was the reality of our family life.
At the time I was working as a freelance journalist, so I decided to write an article about the lack of disability representation in toys. It struck me that there were 770,000 disabled children in the UK and more than 150 million worldwide, yet they were almost completely invisible in the toy industry. The only figures I could find were either in a medical set, a character with a temporary impairment like a broken foot, or wheelchair-using grandparent figures being pushed around by a younger looking able-bodied character. There was nothing which reflected the lived experience of children with permanent impairments.
I decided to partner with Karen Newell, a play consultant who had a disabled son, and together we started a campaign using the hashtag #toylikeme on social media to call out the cultural marginalisation of disabled children by the toy industry.
I began making over my children’s toys to give them hearing aids, cochlear implants and guide dogs using modelling clay. We took high-res images and put them online. Within days the #toylikeme campaign had gone viral with parents sharing the images thousands of times and asking where they could buy them.
We received support from Gruffalo author, Julia Donaldson and comedian, Stephen Merchant and the story was covered by new outlets around the world. We launched petitions asking for Lego and Playmobil to create toys with disabilities. We wanted to see fairies with wheelchairs and knights with white canes. We wanted to collide disability with the fun and fantasy of the toy box and create a whole new visual narrative around childhood disability; one which was divorced from charity or hospitals.
Around the same time, Dr Sian Jones from Queen Margaret’s in Edinburgh was researching the impact of playing with disabled toys on non-disabled children’s friendship intentions. She found that non-disabled children became more open minded towards disabled children after just three minutes of playing with a disabled toy.
After the success of our online images, we wanted to take things to the next level and create artwork which explored the aesthetic of disability and toys in more detail. We wanted to make images which could reach children and start conversations where children would be free to ask questions and explore human variation and maybe become more open minded as a result.
After receiving funding from Arts Council England we worked with children’s illustrator Kate Read and photographer Beth Moseley to create the Toy Box Tales exhibition of photographic images. We took mainstream recognisable figures and reimagined them with disabilities. The images included the cast of Disney’s Frozen with limb difference, a cochlear implant and trach tube. Barbie and Ken were given a dream Deaf wedding and Hulk a diabetic line.
The images went on display at hospital trusts around the UK. We created leaching resources to accompany the exhibition which allow teachers to start playful conversation with learners and explore how they can adapt their own toys or examine how different built environments can impact on disabled people’s access.
We have toured schools in Norfolk and York and in 2021 we are delighted to be collaborating with The Civic, Barnsley to bring Toy Box Tales to school children in South Yorkshire.
Today, Toy Like Me is less of a campaign group and more of an arts and play organisation based in Norwich and York. We create projects and public facing events which celebrate disability in playful ways.
And the toy industry? Six years on from the start of Toy Like Me and Lego have created the world’s first mini-figure with a wheelchair, another with hearing aids and recently a character with a guide dog. Lottie dolls have created dolls with cochlear implants, autism accessories and restricted growth. Barbie has a plethora of characters with impairments including vitiligo, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs and hair loss. We are happy to say that the play landscape is a much more diverse place now and we hope a generation of children are growing open minds through the magic of toys.
For more information about our projects and touring exhibitors visit toylikeme.org
Toy Like Me’s Toy Box Tales will visit schools throughout term time until March 2022 and will exhibit in the following Barnsley libraries.
WOMBWELL LIBRARY. SAT 3 JUL – SAT 31 JUL
GOLDTHORPE LIBRARY. SAT 7 AUG – SAT 28 AUG
LIBRARY @ THE LIGHTBOX, BARNSLEY. MON 18 OCT – MON 1 NOV
Visit here for library opening times. https://www.barnsley.gov.uk/services/libraries/find-a-library/