In June of this year Lego sent ripples of offence through the disabled community when they used the term 'window licker' (an outdated derogatory term to describe a person with learning difficulties) to market their new Mixel products. The company were slammed by leading UK disability charities and social media users globally.
Whilst quick to issue an apology, Lego have seemingly failed to repair the damage sufficiently in the eyes of the disabled community with one mother blogging that an apology is not enough. "I would like to see amends being made," says The Eventual Mother blog. "I would like to see a big gesture... A gesture that will make a positive impact on people, including children, living with disabilities."
The #ToyLikeMe campaign group are now calling on Lego to do just that with the launch of a change.org petition asking Lego to positively represent disability in their products and help generations of kids grow up with a better attitude to human difference.
Globally there are 150 million children with disabilities, yet these kids, and their peers, are growing up rarely seeing disability included in toys. Global toy brands like Lego have huge cultural sway. Their toys and characters are admired, desired and emulated in playground games the world over. Yet the company is sending out an enduring message of disability exclusion. The vast Lego range does not feature a single wheelchair, there are no mini-figures, Duplo characters or Lego Friends with disabilities and wheelchair ramps and access features are invisible in all Lego buildings.
As Australian academic, Katie Ellis, said in her recently published book, Disability and Popular Culture, "Toys... mirror the values of the society that produces them." If disability representation is non-existent across all Lego products and the brand's only reference to disability is a 'window licking' Mixel, what values is that mirroring? What are they saying to children?
In April 2015 I co-founded the online #ToyLikeMe campaign along with some parents of children with disabilities who were fed up of not being able to find positive representation in toys. It was a cause close to my heart as I had grown up in the 80s wearing hearing aids and spent my childhood trying to hide them. I never saw myself reflected positively anywhere. We started to makeover toys to give them disabilities in a call to the global toy industry to modernise and start representing ALL children.
We created wheelchairs and guide dogs for Playmobil characters, gave Tinkerbelle a cochlear implant and hearing aids to Lottie dolls. The results went viral and have now been shared and viewed thousands of times. In May, London based 3D printing doll company mymakie.com answered our campaign call and started producing the world's first dolls with disabilities. Lottie dolls have engaged and are now producing glasses for 25% of their dolls after a child contacted them asking for a toy like her.
Our change.org petition calling on Playmobil was signed by 50k people causing the German makers to happily start developing an upcoming line of characters with disabilities inspired by #ToyLikeMe. Sadly, to date, despite our friendly approaches, Lego have remained silent. It seems the brand just want to hide, turn away awkwardly when it comes to disability.
#ToyLikeMe are not the first to call on Lego for disability representation. The 'Lego Ideas' platform invites fans to submit and vote for designs they would like to see made into a reality. Those receiving over 10,000 votes are submitted to the design team for possible development. There have been numerous previous submissions which include wheelchairs and assistance dogs for mini-figures but none have achieved the required 10k votes.
#ToyLikeMe have created a Lego wheelchair skate park to accompany our change.org petition (photograph above) to inspire Lego and as an example of how disability representation might fit within their brand. It's been suggested we submit this design to the Lego Ideas platform. So far we've resisted. We want to see real commitment to positive disability representation coming from the heart of Lego, written into the core brand values and commitments, not left to the public vote.