Rebecca Atkinson’s crusade started as a simple thought. Now, this mother of two has ignited one of the most talked-about stories on the internet for this year.
However, Atkinson isn’t just talking about change; she’s driving it through her #ToyLikeMe campaign which she co-founded.
So how did it all begin? In short, it began in the place where lots of dreaming begins…in the toybox.
“I stood back and looked at our toybox in a new light…Not one plastic figure had a wheelchair, or a hearing aid, a white cane or any kind of disability at all.”
In a world where more than 150 million children are living with some sort of disability, this sort of exclusion didn’t make sense. Atkinson turned to two of her friends, both of whom are parents of children with different-abilities, and the trio set-up a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and started using the hashtag #ToyLikeMe. They initially asked for submissions of photos that depicted toys with special needs. They received two photos. Then the lightbulb went off. They began giving their children’s toys makeovers, all the while using the hashtag that they’d created. Suddenly, the posts began going viral. Parents began liking and sharing a particular post, one in which Disney’s Tinker Bell is outfitted with a bright pink cochlear implant.
“I think that the toy industry including representations of disability is positive for two reasons,” says Atkinson. “One is that it’s massively affirming for children with disabilities to see themselves celebrated by major toy brands. And two, it teaches ALL children about the natural spectrum of human life. It’s win-win!”
Atkinson knows first-hand the experience of growing up ‘different’. She was born partially deaf and has tunnel-vision due to an eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. In fighting for inclusion in the toy industry, she’s doing what she says is “making the toy box a better place for future generations”.
The fight hasn’t always been easy. While Atkinson states that some brands, such as Playmobil, Orchard Toys, Makies and Lottie Dolls have been hugely supportive, others have taken longer to answer the call while others such as Hasbro and Mattel haven’t acknowledged the call. (A surprising fact to note, as Mattel has its own hospital sponsorship at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California.)
Mattel previously released a wheelchair-bound doll called ‘Share a Smile Becky’ through their Barbie line; however it caused a controversy when Kjersti Johnson, a 17-year-old high with cerebral palsy, pointed out that the doll would not fit into the elevator of Barbie's $100 Dream House.
Most of the toy companies are being lobbied through the #ToyLikeMe Facebook page, as well as through Change.org petitions.
Today, Atkinson is busy keeping up with the campaign influx, which only grew more frantic as it was revealed in late-January that Lego had unveiled its very own figurine inspired by the #ToyLikeMe movement. The plastic figure wears a grey beanie and hoodie while wheeling around in a slick wheelchair, all the while sporting a wide grin.
“I think this new wheelchair-using guy is a great start from Lego for a number of reasons. He’s young, so doesn’t pander to the stereotype that disability is the preserve of older people. There are 150 million disabled kids who need positive toy box representation. He’s not in a hospital set either, which is great. So often disability is shown as a broken leg or a short stay in the hospital. This Lego guy is doing normal fun things in the park with everyone else. Just want we wanted to see!”
Lego was important to the success of Atkinson’s toy industry change because it also happens to be the largest toy company with annual revenue reported at $28.6 Billion.
What started as a simple hashtag, has grown into a powerful campaign. “We started using #ToyLIkeMe as a hashtag but I think the power of the campaign came more from the groups of parents and disabled people that are already aggregated together on the internet,” Atkinson shares. “If you create a photograph of a Tinker Bell doll with a cochlear implant and tag In lots of deaf groups when you first post it, it’s very quick to fly as you can tap directly into your intended target. #ToyLikeMe grew very fast in this way. Also, you are creating something new, that people have not seen before, but it’s also very obvious once it’s pointed out. These are the fuel for #ToyLikeMe more than the hashtag itself.”
After spending nearly 20 years working in TV production and print journalism, Atkinson is heavily focused on her passion to run the #ToyLikeMe campaign, which she states, “has become a nearly full-time job.”
So, what’s the long-term goal for #ToyLikeMe? For Atkinson, it’s all about representation for the children who play with these toys. “We have to be realistic here. I don’t want to create a toy box where ALL disabilities are represented in ALL toys. But I would like to see peppering of representation across the market so that there are choices for kids. For example, Lego now has a wheelchair, American Girl has a diabetes kit, Makies have a hearing aid. I would like to see all brands factor it incidentally into their products and do their bit to grow self-esteem for these kids, and change perceptions in all kids.”
That’s what Atkinson's crowdfunded campaign aims to do as well. “I intend to use the crowdfunding money to create a website,” says Atkinson “Where I will house product information about representative toys across the market and connect customers with hard to find products.”
SHANNA SABET-DEMOTT is a freelance writer living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her husband George DeMott sings Italian arias in the shower, and Pop-Opera around the world. She has an 11 year old daughter who has survived 3 brain surgeries, and has shown her Mama the meaning of bravery at every turn. She is a lover of telling stories about food and life on her blogs, eatingoutvegas.com and stumblingbeauty.com