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Disability And Dolls: #ToyLikeMe Is A Mark Of Progress

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By Katie Ellis:

asdOn June 5 British toy manufacturer Makies announced cochlear implants were available to buy as accessories in their toy store.

Makies uses 3D printing technology to make one-of-a-kind dolls. It was the first company to respond to #ToyLikeMe, a social media campaign to “increase diversity in the toybox” initiated by three UK mothers with disabilities.

Image Courtesy of MyMakie
Image Courtesy of MyMakie

When the trio posted a picture of Tinkerbell with a cochlear implant it began an online movement of parents with and without disabilities posting images of their own #toylikeme.

But this is not the first campaign to criticise the absence of disability diversity in the toybox and Makies is not the first company to offer so-called toys with disabilities. In fact a number of other companies such as American Girls and bindependent already offer accessories.

There is even a WWE toy wheelchair for wrestling action figures.

Image courtesy of MyMakie

Disability bio-etheticist Rosemary Garland Thomson, on Radio National in April, spoke of disability as a form of human variation and diversity. Thomson argued disability should be understood as a reality to be accommodated, not as a problem to be eliminated. With recent statistics showing one in six school-aged children have a disability, diversity in the toybox is ever more important.

Toys have been used throughout history to communicate cultural ideas and reflect the changing position of disability in society.

Journalist,blogger and #toylikeme founder Rebecca Atkinson explained the motivation behind the campaign in mid-May on The Limping Chicken:

When I was growing up, I never saw a doll like me. What does that say to deaf and disabled children? That they aren’t worth it? That they’re invisible in the toys they play with? That they’re invisible in society?

With the exception of medicalised doctors’ and nurses’ kits, which began to be featured during the 1940s, a content analysis of 1930-1963 Billy and Ruth toy catalogues reveals an absence of disability-themed toys until a Three Blind Mice Talking Toy in 1955. The next to appear was the culturally significant Mr Magoo Toy Car in 1961.

This toy was protested against by people with vision impairment for stereotyping blindness in 1962.

Children’s toys mirror the values of the society that produce them. In my book Disability and Popular Culture (2015) I relate the emergence of a number of disability toys to key moments of disability social and cultural change.

It is no coincidence that disabled action figures J. Jay Armes (Ideal Toys, 1976) and Mike Power Atomic Man (G.I. Joe, 1975) were released as returning Vietnam vets with similar disabilities were advocating for a more disability-inclusive society.

Ironically, Share a Smile Becky did not fit through the doors of Barbie’s Dreamhouse. AP/AAP


Likewise Mattel Barbie’s Share a Smile Becky (1996) and American Sign Language Teacher (1999) followed the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) during the 90s. These toys are often described as having a positive impact on the sense of selves of children with disabilities.

The #toylikeme campaign is evidence of another key moment in disability social change. Towson University Disability Media Professor Beth Haller has identified this moment as disability’s occupation of digital spaces.

It is true that disability has been receiving a lot of attention in social media and pop culture in the last month: from Maddy Stuart’s modelling debut to iDiversicons’ Disability Pride Emojis released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act to the significant backlash against TEDx’s #Stellaschallenge.

The #toylikeme campaign and Makie’s 3D printing of disability accessories can be situated within this broader trend. Beth Haller says social media allows disability advocates to use vast global networks of “friends” or “followers” to better promote the issues or events important to them.

Haller concludes social media has reinvigorated disability rights activism and fostered more interaction within the disability community regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, disability, or geography.

While the #ToylikeMe campaign has received positive feedback, historically other disability dolls, such as Mattel’s Hal’s Pals series of Cabbage Patch style dolls with disabilities in the 1980s, or Helga Parks Down Syndrome Dolls have been heavily criticised by a society unwilling to accept disability.

Opponents to disability dolls often point to the ways they emphasise difference rather than encourage children with disabilities to see themselves as the same as everybody else. This ignores the way environments and discriminatory attitudes disable people, not bodies.

As disability rights activist Lisa Egan explains in an xoJane article shared more than 15 000 times, the lack of wheelchair access at train stations is an example of the ways environments have been constructed to exclude people with disability:

Stairs and escalators are man-made barriers put in the way by a discriminatory society that excludes me because I have impaired mobility..

Makies, #toyslikeme and the broader focus on disability in digital spaces show we are in the midst of a significant shift towards an inclusive world view of disability.

With children with disabilities now more likely to attend mainstream schools, children without disabilities are exposed to the reality of disability in society.

Campaigns such as #toylikeme continue to use their global network of followers to encourage mainstream toy companies such as LEGO, Playmobil and Mattel to incorporate disabled toys into their catalogue.

It’s not just children with disabilities who will benefit from inclusive toybox representation.

The ConversationKatie Ellis is Senior Research Fellow in Internet studies at Curtin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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