“Children with disabilities are not ‘limited editions’. They are the way they are and here to stay, so why should the dolls that represent them be treated any differently?”
This is the drum that Maria Kentley, founder of Australasian firm Hope Toys, has been beating for the last year, in her endeavors to create a new platform to help parents and kids bring more inclusivity into the toy box.
In early 2015, Kentley’s frustration with the ‘toy giants’ monopoly’ over the toys that make it to shelf each year lead her to create Hope Toys, an outlet for disability representative toys to be treated as part of the wider industry, and not just labelled as ‘limited edition’ to soon be added to the discontinued list.
Through Hope Toys, Kentley now creates bespoke dolls to represent their audiences with a host of accessories such as personalised wheelchairs. And just over one year since launch, business is booming.
“Seeing more inclusive dolls and toys make it to the toy shelves has been a dream of mine for a very long time,” Kentley tells ToyNews.
“All children deserve to feel special and represented through toys. A wheelchair for example, is often over looked at by the general public as a symbol of sympathy and fear, but to a person who uses a wheelchair, it is their friend.
“Children can learn so much about diversity when playing with dolls. Unfortunately, the majority of accessories we see these days don’t give them that opportunity, and that is sad.”
Recent months have seen the rise of a new campaign in the UK and across the globe to introduce more disability representation to the toy shelves.
A movement that was kickstarted by journalist Rebecca Atkinson and her #ToyLikeMe campaign, the initiative has prompted even some of the industry's players - including the likes of Playmobil and LEGO - to get on board with disability representative toy lines.
In fact most recently, the Danish construction toy manufacturer LEGO unveiled its first wheelchair user character to be produced en masse.
It’s a move that has been met with applause from communities across the globe and labeled a 'massive moment' for the #ToyLikeMe campaign and inclusivity across the board. But for Kentley the very nature of the campaign is bittersweet as she voices that inclusivity such as this shouldn't need a campaign behind it to get started.
“Why can’t a princess be bald or a toy posture walker or AFOs be regularly available accessories for any doll or action figure?” she asks. "It has always been something I've always wanted to do; Make dolls I wished stores 'would' sell, rather than what has been 'chosen' for us consumers by the toy industry giants."
Of course, well aware of the diversity in disability, Kentley understands that there is a struggle for toy manufacturers to represent what makes every child unique. However, this in turn is exactly where her bespoke service comes into play.
“I find that parents love having the flexibility to customise a doll to suit their own child’s uniqueness, I have had requests from clients wanting a doll for a child with Spina Bifida, one child who used a walker and a third child who used a wheelchair,” continues Kentley.
“Toy manufacturers won’t be able to make dolls that please everyone, but I think marketing dolls with a specific disability or condition with a wider range of accessories and add on features would be a step in the right direction.”
A champion of the work of the UK journalist Atkinson, the Hope Toys owner believes that these campaigns will help to shift mindsets closer to ‘all inclusive’ toys rather than ‘exclusive’.
“I hope more people will back these campaigns to show the industry that we want change,” she explains. “With some examples like American Girl and Makie's websites offering customising options and disability accessories, it proves the industry is listening, but there is still a long way to go.”
A stay at home mother herself, Kentley admits that her own operation is far from big enough to make it to the major retailers itself, instead servicing singular consumers with bespoke figures.
However, the task of creating as many dolls as she can to represent as many disabilities as possible, offer the bigger player ideas and open up the doors of conversation is one she has taken head on.
“The simple question I would like to ask any toy manufacturer is to put themselves in the shoes of a child who has a disability or a parent of a child with special needs,” says Kentley.
“Wouldn’t they want their child or themselves to have easy access to affordable dolls like these?
“For me, Hope Toys is more of an awareness mission and I enjoy knowing I am helping to put a smile on a child’s face who has long been excluded in the toy industry.”