The story of a campaign that helped produce the UK’s first ever Deaf doll. Melissa Mostyn reports

Did you know that 18 per cent of the UK population is deaf or disabled? And this figure is set to rise, due to people living longer. Every man, woman and child is likely to see disability on the street every day. If toys are to educate about the world around us, shouldn’t their manufacturers acknowledge Deaf and disabled children too? 

That is the driving force behind Toy Like Me, the campaign for better representation of disability in mainstream toys. Started by a group of parents, like myself – who either have an impairment and are bringing up a Deaf or disabled child, or both – the campaign works by giving toys a makeover so they represent disability positively. It also involves getting children 

with disabilities to write a simplex ‘Dear Toy Maker...’  letter to promote diversity in play. Photos are tweeted with the hashtag #toylikeme and uploaded to Facebook.   

The campaign has had an astonishing turnaround. 

By day three, our photos were retweeted by comedian Rory Bremner and the disfigured model and equality rights campaigner, Katie Piper.

By day 10, we had gained 200 likes for our Facebook page. 

Since then, we’ve had support from Glynis Barber, Rita Simons’ husband Trey Simons, Josette Simon, CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell, and amputee model Kelly Knox, who won Britain’s Missing Top Model.

We know that there are already toys on the market representing disability. But keen parents often have to do their research, or go via medical companies like Cochlear who supply dummy CI processors for your child to attach to their teddy. 

This is surely uninspiring for celebrating children with disabilities of their place in mainstream society, or for a non-disabled, hearing child wanting to learn about disability as part of everyday life outside the hospital. 

Take my daughter Isobel, who is nearly six and one of the happiest little girls I know. (Don’t take my word for it: her school says the same.) Yet she has never expressed an interest in any of the dolls available on the High Street. She got a Bratz doll for Christmas once – and has rejected it ever since. This is unusual, as she has not treated her other toys in the same way. 

Then again, Isobel isn’t your average little girl. She has cerebral palsy and global developmental delay, and is much happier relating to other disabled children – who, incidentally, are a regular feature on her favourite television show, Something Special

As indication of her self-awareness (Isobel has no speech and signs very little, although she’s hearing), you can’t get much clearer than this: with its cartoonish, defiantly non-disabled shape, the Bratz doll is the last thing she wants to aspire to. 

Wheelchair-using pirates, disfigured fairies, cheerleaders in hearing aids, Action Men with guide dogs or white canes – these are the sort of toys that will give Isobel, and millions of other Deaf and disabled children in her position, the confidence boost they need. 

They can assert to the world that Deaf and disabled children have lives, aspirations and dreams of their own, and can be just as fun to be with as non-disabled and hearing children.  

Already the absence of such toys has had a lasting impact on generations of Deaf children. One of the mums behind the campaign, Rebecca Atkinson, a deaf and visually impaired journalist, recalls her discovery of a ‘Deaf Barbie’ as a teenager: “I saw an article about Mattel bringing out an American Sign Language Barbie in the USA. 

“She had glossy hair, a pretty face and hands moulded into the shape of an ‘I love you’ sign. She came with a book of ASL signs. 

“She was called ‘ASL Teacher Barbie’. I didn’t know if she was meant to be Deaf herself or a hearing teacher of Deaf children, but in my eyes she was just ‘Deaf Barbie’. 

“At 15 I was too old to play with Barbie and she wasn’t available in the UK, so I never actually got to meet her. But I remember the feeling I got about her. 

Then Deaf Barbie was discontinued. In the last 25 years since then, there have been no other affordable dolls like her. 

For that reason, we are calling upon the biggest UK and global toy manufacturers – Mega Bloks, Mattel, LEGO, Playmobil, Fisher-Price and Little Tikes to name a few – to remedy their current ranges by adding toys representing disabilities to the shop shelves. 

Rather than making it our business to produce the toys regularly, we want them to make it theirs – and this is where we’ve had one of the most exciting developments so far in the campaign. 

Lottie Dolls have responded with enthusiasm and will soon start exploring hearing aids and white canes with their dolls using 3D printing. 

It is worth noting that accessorising dolls with hearing aids, white canes and the like in small numbers are essentially too expensive for smaller toy manufacturers like Lottie for several reasons, one being any adaptations they have to make to the dolls’ catalogues (this is a particular issue for wheelchairs.) 

Another is the challenge of marketing them to the mainstream. But these are losses that can be more easily absorbed by the multinational giants. 

Yet ‘Deaf Barbie’ and Share A Smile Becky have been discontinued, the latter without explanation. The toy industry is worth around £3 billion in the UK alone. When someone
as high-profile as Katie Piper – asks us on Twitter, “Will you actually make the disfigured dolls to sell?”, you have to wonder what the multinational giants’ motives for making toys really are.

UPDATE: UK’s first ever Deaf doll produced

London 3D Printing toy company have stepped up to the Toy Like Me campaign call for better diversity, by producing the UK’s first ever Deaf doll – complete with hearing aids and signing hands.

Makie dolls, who produce bespoke 3D printed dolls online and in Selfridges and Hamleys, print in London and were able to respond to the Toy Like Me campaign in two weeks. The company also plans to produce the world’s first cochlear implant wearing doll.

The Deaf Makie doll will soon be available to buy in store from

Campaigners are thrilled with the response, but have now called on toy giants, Playmobil, Mattell Barbie and Lego to follow suit.

Join the ‘Toy Like Me’ campaign by sharing images of toys that reflect Deafness and disability positively, including toys that have been homemade or altered to give them disabilities. Read and share letters from children with disabilities calling on the toy industry to make more ‘toys like them’, with the hashtag #toylikeme.

Published in BDN June 2015 issue