When my 16-year-old daughter Claire was a little girl, I found dolls that could walk, roller skate and drive, but none that got around the way she usually did — in a wheelchair. Her little sister innocently asked why none of the many dolls we owned were disabled. My heart sank and I became determined to find a doll with a disability — any disability — but came up short.
Eventually, I found a “ski accident” set that included a wheelchair. I didn’t want my children to know that the mini-wheelchair was meant for a doll who was temporarily in a cast instead of one that was disabled. I threw the box away before my children could see it, willing to accept that we finally had a doll collection that looked like our family and that that was probably the best I was going to get.
I wasn’t alone in my frustration. In 2015, Rebecca Atkinson, who is visually impaired and uses a guide dog for assistance, realized that none of her children’s toys were disabled. She took matters into her own hands and gave some toys a makeover.
Atikinson used modeling clay to give one a fairy a guide dog like her own. She gave Barbie a hearing aid and , a skin condition that causes white patches on the skin. Atkinson’s images went viral and toy companies took notice. She used her newfound influence to found Toy Like Me, a non-profit that encourages toy companies to incorporate positive representations of disability into their products. “The reaction online to the images we shared spoke volumes to toy companies. … The toy industry could see that consumer tastes were changing, and inclusion was starting to go mainstream,” Atikinson tells Yahoo Life.
Since then, several toy companies have introduced dolls with disabilities. In 2018, Playmobil created a with a disabled student in a wheelchair. In 2019, introduced a Girl of the Year who is deaf and wears a hearing aid. In 2022, Mattel introduced a in a wheelchair.
More recently, in 2023, Lego updated their popular line to include eight characters with a range of disabilities, some visible and some invisible. Lego chose not to name the disabilities but instead gave each character attributes of different disabilities, including anxiety, autism and ADHD. To add to the complexity of the character's personalities, their heads can rotate to reveal a range of emotions. Carolina Teixeira, global brand director of diversity and inclusion for the Lego Group, says that in the 10 years since Lego Friends launched, there has been a cultural shift. There is a greater awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion, she says. Children from all backgrounds and of all abilities expect to see characters that look like them and they aren’t afraid to speak up when that isn’t happening.
One new Lego Friends character, Autumn, is missing an arm. She was inspired by a girl with a limb difference who wrote to Lego to request a figure that looks like her. Lego listened. Fenella Charity, creative lead for Lego Friends, tells Yahoo Life that they want to give kids the “tools they need to play out their own experiences.” Teixeira emphasizes that all the Lego Friends characters incorporated input from people with disabilities. Teixeira says that the Lego team sought out these “subject matter experts” to get insight into what life with the various disabilities represented in the Friends line is like. Teixeira notes that they didn’t need to “scout around” to find people with disabilities to talk to as part of their research, because they are “among us.”
Charity told Yahoo Life Lego made the change because “it’s important for kids to play with toys that look like them” and for disabilities to be “visible to other people.” She says that Lego chose not to define these characters by their disabilities but to make their disabilities just one of many attributes they have, including a love of riding horses, playing the guitar and skateboarding, “to place the focus on what kids have in common rather than what makes them different.”
Psychotherapist James Miller says there are important benefits to playing with toys that represent disability in a positive light for both disabled and non-disabled children.
“The benefit of a child with a disability playing with toys that represent a disability is significant. It helps create identity, delivers inclusivity and, most importantly, it helps to cement the normalization of disability and helps with the imagination, specifically when it comes to future careers and goals,” Miller tells Yahoo Life.
That is true for 5-year-old Malachi. Last year, Malachi’s mom, Whitney Stohr, found an Easter bunny in a wheelchair at Target. At first, she says, Malachi wasn’t very excited about the bunny. “Then, he saw the chair and his whole face lit up," she says. "It was a sudden change in his whole demeanor . He was joyous, I think is the best word. He started dancing and laughing and waving his arms around. It was pretty amazing!”
Able-bodied and typically developing children benefit from playing with these types of toys because “it creates a sense of normalcy, inclusivity and empathy. If some of the toys aren't ambulatory or mobile, and other toys are, the child will develop creative ways for the toys to interact or work together successfully, which is likely to carry over into real-life interactions as well,” Miller says.
Children without disabilities experience a positive impact too. is an 8-year-old who uses a wheelchair and due to a lack of ramps and elevators. Xiomara’s 10-year-old friend Zoe has noticed that these barriers prevent Xiomara from going everywhere she can go — and how unfair this is. When putting together a Lego Friends treehouse set, Zoe discovered a character in a wheelchair and a treehouse elevator. When this happened, Zoe’s mom Allie Chandra tells Yahoo Life that she excitedly called out, “Mom! Xiomara could come to this treehouse with us!”
Dr. Luke Macyszyn sees the benefits of children playing with dolls that reflect their own physical disabilities as part of his work with children with scoliosis. “As scoliosis increases, the patient’s spine begins to curve and all sorts of other abnormalities, which are also externally visible, develop. For example, patients may develop uneven shoulders or have a tilted pelvis. As you can imagine, teenagers find this especially stigmatizing,” he says. He helped Mattel develop Chelsea, because he realized how helpful the doll would be for his patients and other children with the condition. “The kids love it,” he says, “ It is very heartwarming to see how normalized scoliosis suddenly becomes when there is a doll with a similar condition.”
Sharron Perri’s 3-year-old son Amos has a toy school bus that comes with a character in a wheelchair. “He now always notices the [accessible] parking spots and talks about how some people use wheelchairs so those spots are important and we can't park in them. ... The toy definitely has been on his mind and he notices people in wheelchairs and just that they get around in a different way than him,” Perri tells Yahoo Life.
Often children won’t need any encouragement to play with a new toy. However, if a child seems reluctant to accept a toy that represents a disability, Miller recommends creating a backstory. “Creating a narrative around the disability of the toy reinforces the idea that there's absolutely nothing wrong,” Miller explains. He adds that “a creative story also gives depth to the toy, which helps a child become more attached to it, and that toy is more likely to become one of their favorite toys, which is a great way to reinforce the positive messages of the toy."
One of the benefits of using this technique is that parents can create a backstory for any doll or figure and include disability as part of the toy’s history. As the new Lego Friends charters demonstrate, not all disabilities are visible. While representing visible disabilities is important, it’s not necessary to buy anything special to create a positive representation of disability in your existing toy collection. It can be as easy as telling your child their new doll likes ice cream and sometimes has a hard time making new friends.
Atkinson says that “it’s really affirming for disabled children and families to see their experience celebrated through the magic of play and we see first-hand how that impacts children’s self-esteem and positive disabled identity.” She adds that when it comes to children without disabilities, “research … has found that just three minutes of playing with a disabled toy can impact a non-disabled child’s friendship attitudes towards a disabled child. Representation in toys has the power to grow open minds and remove attitudinal barriers.”
Given all of these benefits, Atkinson is happy about the recent introduction of more toys with disabled characters. “We are just delighted that toy companies recognize the need for children to see themselves and for toy boxes to be as diverse as the world around us,” she says.
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.