Meet the woman whose campaign to break disability stereotyping led to Lego toy milestone
The woman who started the #ToyLikeMe campaign is celebrating a major breakthrough after Lego unveiled a new minifigure of a wheelchair user.
Rebecca Atkinson, a journalist from London, saw Lego’s move as a big step towards ending “cultural marginalisation” – and a big result for the campaign she founded to urge Lego and other toy manufacturers to better represent diverse backgrounds.
“We are beyond happy right now,” she said in a statement. “Lego have just rocked our brick-built world and made 150 million disabled kids, their mums, dads, pet dogs and hamsters very very happy.
“We’re all conga-ing up and down the street chucking coloured bricks like confetti.”
Rebecca started the #ToyLikeMe campaign a year ago, after noticing the lack of disability representation in toys.
“I grew up with two hearing aids,” says Rebecca, who is partially deaf and has tunnel vision due to genetic condition retinitis pigmentosa.
“When I was a child, I never saw myself represented in the toys I played, in the books I read or in the TV shows that I watched.”
The mother-of-two hoped that her movement would be a small step to help secure better representation of the 770,000 disabled children in the UK and 150 million across the globe.
The campaign quickly gained thousands of supporters, including celebrities like Stephen Merchant, and resulted in Rebecca working as a creative disability consultant with Playmobil to create new characters. Soon more than 20,000 people were signing a petition urging Lego to follow suit.
“We have moved on in terms of how we deal with disabilities in our society but the toy industry seemed to be lagging behind,” says Rebecca. “So I spoke to a few parents with disabled children and we launched our Facebook campaign Toys Like Me.
“We started giving some toys makeovers to give them disabilities. We did things like giving little Lego men wheelchairs and fairies little guide dogs… and then it went viral.
“Since then we have been lobbying all the big toy manufacturers to start culturally representing disabled children within their products.”
Rebecca believes that growing up as often the only one in class or school to use a wheelchair or hearing aids can be an isolating experience for disabled children.
Which is why when she saw the photos of Lego’s new minifigure in a wheelchair wearing a beanie and with a smile on his face, her heart “skipped a beat”.
“When I was growing up, I never saw myself represented on TV,” she says. “I remember seeing someone on Blue Peter with a talk-back earpiece and I thought it was a hearing aid.
“I had a massive feeling of recognition. And I thought, ‘Oh, she is like me’. But then I realised later that wasn’t the case but it was a really powerful feeling.”
That feeling of positive empowerment resurfaced when Mattel unveiled their sign language-using Barbie doll.
“Mattel brought out a sign language-using Barbie when I was around 15,” she says. “I was probably too old to play with Barbies at that point but I remember thinking ‘Oh, I have got a hearing aid and Mattel are turning around and saying sign language communication is what they are associating with Barbie’.
“It was a really powerful message.”
Rebecca is now seeking investment through a crowdfunding website to grow the organisation and create an online hub to help parents find products which represent disability.
She believes toy manufacturers have the power and influence to change perception surrounding people from disabled backgrounds, but costs can be a major factor if the items might only sell in small numbers.
“We have had contact with some of the smaller toy brands who are behind the idea but don’t have the funds to do it,” she says. “But larger companies, on the other hand, can soak up the losses when they make a product like that.” And Rebecca says the move by Lego “will speak volumes to children, disabled or otherwise, the world over”.
“If they present a little boy in a wheelchair in a fun park setting – like they have done with this new product – they are speaking a much bigger message than just a little figure.”
“It is a hugely powerful thing for children to see. I hope Lego have realised the wonderful thing they have done. I congratulate them and I hope this is a start of a lot of incidental representation of their product because the response online has been phenomenal.”
Rebecca hopes the #ToyLikeMe hub will also herald a powerful shift in the children’s entertainment industry.
“I would like to recast how we think about disability in the children’s industry,” she says. “We would like to continue to call on the industry for positive disability representation.
“There’s a lot of fear like ‘Oh we are going to offend people’ – and I think the whole of children’s industry needs to get more celebratory approach.”
For more information, check out ToyLikeMe’s Facebook page and crowd-funding site.