More children with disabilities might be appearing on screen, but financial restrictions, production limitations and a lack of imagination mean they’re not being represented in the toy aisle. In the first of a series examining underrepresented groups in the kids space, Kidscreen will explore these obstacles and the “CP disability dilemma” as written in braille above.
Picture yourself as a kid. You might be five, or eight. Chances are you’re a lot shorter, and the world seems a lot bigger. A toy store feels like a cave of wonders, filled with treasures piled so high you could climb them like mountains. But the truth is you can’t reach those top shelves; you’re not tall enough. And even the toys close enough to touch might be out of your grasp—if you’re living with a disability. Because as much progress as the kids industry has made to become more inclusive in its representation of children with different abilities across TV, movies and books, it has failed to create consumer products designed for kids with disabilities at the same pace.
The World Health Organization reports that approximately 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. But products designed for differently abled kids are difficult to find, as most retailers are hesitant to dedicate shrinking shelf space to what is considered a niche market. When families do find these specialized products, they come with significantly higher price tags. A recent report from London-based nonprofit Scope found that the average family with a disabled child faces supplementary costs of US$757 each month, with nearly a quarter of those families actually paying closer to US$1,300 monthly. These increased prices reflect smaller production sizes as well as higher development cost. And historically, these issues have contributed to IP owners and toymakers avoiding licensing products designed for kids with disabilities. Despite the challenges, there are some companies rolling out new toys that meet these unique needs.
The LEGO Group, for one, is building up an offering for blind and visually impaired children with its Braille Bricks kit (pictured above). The company, along with The LEGO Foundation, announced the line in April, and it’s expected to launch in 2020. Designed to help kids learn braille, the bricks are molded with the same number of studs used for individual letters and numbers in the braille alphabet. The kit will include roughly 250 bricks featuring the full alphabet plus numbers and select math symbols. The Braille Bricks kit is fully compatible with other LEGO toys and playsets, and each one includes a printed letter or number to allow sighted teachers, family members and friends to also interact with the product.
LEGO’s effort comes at a time when the World Health Organization estimates 19 million children globally are visually impaired. “Braille knowledge leads to increased literacy and a higher degree of independence [for blind and visually impaired children]. We know that braille users thrive,” says Diana Ringe Krogh, head of advocacy and new ventures at The LEGO Foundation. “We know kids learn best by getting hands-on, and the LEGO bricks were an obvious fit because of the connection between the braille alphabet and the studs on the bricks.”
Two organizations (Brazil’s Dorina Nowill Foundation and the Danish Association of the Blind) independently suggested the project to The LEGO Foundation. And the brickmaker’s CSR arm took on the challenge, Ringe Krogh says, because it was a perfect fit with LEGO’s mission to promote learning through play. Associations in Denmark, Brazil, the UK and Norway, as well as blind and visually impaired children, participated in the development process to determine everything from the placement of the printed letters and numbers to the colors used.
Danish, Norwegian, English and Portuguese prototypes of the Braille Bricks kit are being piloted in those regions, and German, Spanish and French kits will be tested in Q3. So far, the development process for the new molds has run in the low tens of millions, though Ringe Krogh adds that the LEGO Group and LEGO Foundation have both also invested a significant amount of time into the project.
The level of investment the LEGO Group has dedicated to its Braille Bricks kit, though admirable, may very well serve as a cautionary tale for other toycos considering a similar effort. The buy-in required to create a new range of consumer products for children with disabilities is a significant barrier for most companies, which is why Microsoft decided to employ something of a cheat code.
Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller is designed for gamers with limited mobility, including those who can’t hold a traditional controller or who can’t reach all of its bumpers and triggers. Because the spectrum of individual needs for gamers with disabilities is so wide, it has historically been accepted that creating a range of controllers that could address every one of them isn’t financially viable. Instead, Microsoft decided to create one controller that could be adapted through the use of button, thumbstick and trigger inputs. Essentially, gamers can use the Xbox Accessories app to program the controller’s two large buttons, along with a number of different add-ons, like joysticks, to create a device that addresses kids’ specific needs.
The controller also supports common adaptive switches that gamers with disabilities may already own, in an effort to cut down on the costs associated with adaptive devices. The Xbox Adaptive Controller launched in September 2018 and retails at just under US$100 (compared to around US$50 for a standard version).
“It’s not easy for gamers with limited mobility or their caregivers to find, assemble and pay for custom gaming rigs,” says Gabi Michel, senior hardware program manager for Microsoft devices. “They frequently cost just as much as, if not more than, a gaming console. They also typically require technical expertise to build.”
Michel says the adaptive controller’s design was the result of feedback from gamers, who expressed frustration over the lack of options for their needs. Microsoft collaborated with a number of non-profit and special interest groups during development, including The Able Gamers Charity, SpecialEffect and The Cerebral Palsy Foundation. The company also spoke directly with gamers with disabilities to better understand their specific accessibility requirements.
“We believe gaming is for everyone, and gaming itself can have a profound impact on the lives of people with limited mobility,” Michel says. “It creates a new outlet for stress relief, increased opportunity to socialize, and can even aid in therapy and rehabilitation.”
By continuing these conversations with gamers, Michel says Microsoft will better learn to recognize the barriers that prevent kids with disabilities from participating in gaming in the first place. And moving forward, she says the company will pursue additional solutions to improve accessibility across all of its offerings in an effort to make its products available to every possible consumer.
Michel describes the company’s strategy as “solve for one and extend to many,” as Microsoft identifies the problems faced by individual gamers and then works backwards to determine which fix could benefit as many people as possible.
This is crucial, because two kids with similar disabilities may have wildly different experiences. Two children living with cerebral palsy, for example, might have completely different requirements for their Xbox adaptive controllers depending on their unique needs.
“If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism,” says Grainne McGuinness, managing director of Northern Ireland’s Paper Owl Films and creator of the preschool series Pablo. “It’s not as if when you’re autistic, you’re this one thing. It was important for us to represent that.”
Pablo (pictured above) was commissioned by CBeebies in 2015 and picked up by UK-based distributor CAKE in 2017. The 52 x 11-minute series blends live action with 2D animation and follows the everyday adventures of a little boy on the autism spectrum. The show was created in an effort to reflect what autism is really like for children, McGuinness says, and a number of its writers are also on the spectrum.
“They’re amazing writers, and the show is so fresh and original because it’s coming from their perspective,” she says.
A second season is currently in production, and the team is exploring possibilities for a wide array of consumer products that can also be enjoyed by kids with autism, McGuinness says. Her insistence that merchandise reflect the reality of being on the spectrum has resulted in some skepticism from retail and licensing partners.
“This industry is governed by time and money, by budgets and schedules, and those established processes don’t naturally give up a lot of room for doing something different,” she says. “People are risk-averse.”
To start, McGuinness is focusing on story-based efforts that can follow in the footsteps of the show. Penguin Random House recently signed on to launch four books inspired by Pablo. From the show’s writing team, the first book is set to hit shelves in April 2020. Additionally, a musical stage show is in development, also with input from the writing team. McGuinness says it’s crucial that each consumer product extension be examined from the perspective of someone on the autism spectrum.
“Speaking to the people you’re trying to represent is so important,” she says. “It can open up new insights or creative avenues you would never have found on your own, and it’s incredibly cost-effective.”
For McGuinness, these conversations led to the realization that toys inspired by Pablo should channel energy to help kids on the autism spectrum get rid of feelings of anxiety, frustration or excitement (think fidget toys and trampolines). She also dreams of launching a range of apparel that is incredibly soft and appeals to kids struggling with sensory overload.
Additionally, McGuinness says the clothes would have no front or back, no seams, no labels, no zippers and no Velcro.
The current digital retail landscape (which is a crowded one) makes having niche offerings more important than ever, McGuinness says. Indeed, a niche that includes approximately one in every 65 children around the world—as well as their families and friends—isn’t all that small, and would be a good niche to target, she says. “Whoever is smart enough to tap into this market is going to be very happy they did so.”