Toy Like Me campaign co-founder and creative disability consultant Rebecca Atkinson discusses how to approach disability representation in your early-stage toy designs.

How to approach disability representation in toy design

Oh toy industry, where are your wheelchair wizards, princesses with guide dogs, hearing aid wearing fairies?

There are 150 million children with disabilities worldwide who currently never see themselves positively represented in the toy box. Toy Like Me is a online campaign calling on the global toy industry to change this and help generations of children grow up with a more positive attitude to human difference.

Here some useful steps in how to approach disability representation in your early-stage toy designs.

1) Avoid the medical model of disability. All to often wheelchairs and white sticks are left to the domain of hospital play sets. This is useful for preparing children for a hospital visits but what does it tell them about real life disability? Disability exists outside of hospitals in every walk of life so why shouldn’t it exist in the fairy glade, the castle or fantasy spy cave?

2) Avoid tired stereotypes. Disability representation has fallen into three camps in the past. Evil stereotypes where their disabilities are physical manifestation of wrongdoing (think Captain Hook) comical, where the disability is the butt of the joke, (Mr Magoo) or passive and pitied. Think outside the box. Add a bit of fun, sparkle and magic. Give a fairy a white cane with flowers adorning the handle or a pirate an electric chair with a skull gear stick! Disability doesn’t have to be worthy. Mix it up bit. Stick some wings on the back of a pixie’s wheelchair, give a hippo a hearing aid, a clown a sausage dog guide dog with a polka dot harness and white neck ruffle. It doesn’t have to be an accurate representation! Most toys aren’t!

3) Have incidental characters with disabilities in play sets. Representation of disability in toys shouldn’t be left to niche products but considered across the board. If you’re creating a toy bus, think about having a character with a wheelchair amongst your passengers. Or a fold down bus ramp! If you’re designing a tree house, have a lift and a spiral ramp snaking round the tree trunk for a wheelchair using squirrel!

4) Watch your words. Place the child first in all product descriptions. Use the term ‘children with disabilities’ rather than ‘disabled children’. Call someone a ‘wheelchair user’ rather then ‘in’ a wheelchair. It’s all more positive!

For more inspiration you can find lots of photos and toy makeovers at

Rebecca Atkinson is a freelance journalist and creative disability consultant. She is available for toy design and development consultation and disability toy market insight for companies looking to include positive representations of disability and difference in their products.

Images courtesy of Beth Moseley Photography.

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