by Laurence Clark
BBC Ouch 31st December 2007
My three year-old son Tom sobbed his heart out when his action figure of Rose Tyler, Doctor Who‘s assistant played by Billie Piper, became disabled. He loved that toy so much that he took it everywhere with him. But alas, Rose wasn’t manufactured to be water-resistant, so after she went in the bath her arms fell off (as you can see in the accompanying photo).
But being the sort of parents we are, we made our son see the positive side to this tragic loss. We have affectionately renamed her ‘Thalidomide Rose’ and taught him that, even though she’s now completely armless, she still deserves to be respected as an individual.
We’ve even bought him a replacement water-resistant Doctor Who toy for bath-time. It’s a rubber duck, with a long scarf and floppy hat, that lights up when it comes into contact with water – it’s called Ducktor Who. He’s not so much a Time Lord as a Time Duck. (I honestly haven’t made this up; you really can buy such a toy.)
Anyway, the Thalidomide Rose incident piqued my interest in what might be available by way of disability-related toys. So after hours of searching the internet, I actually managed to find a shop that sold toy disability aids and equipment, which can be fitted to a child’s favourite doll / teddy bear / action figure. They supply toy wheelchairs (both manual and electric), dark glasses, guide dogs, white canes, crutches, callipers, walking frames and hearing aids.
For me, however, this just doesn’t go far enough. You see, I dream of a world where toy manufacturers finally come to fully embrace the true, wide ranging diversity of the disabled community. Where My Little Pony can be bought with an optional kidney dialysis machine. Where alongside Action Man‘s machine gun accessory is a syringe full of play dough insulin. And where Barbie’s very own Ken can be fitted with a cosy colostomy bag.
But do disabled toys really have educational value? I must confess to having my doubts after an incident the other week. Whilst visiting friends, my son eagerly spied their pristine, boxed Share-a-Smile Becky doll (Barbie’s wheelchair-using best friend) and wanted to play with her. Since it’s impossible to explain the concept of something being a collectable to a three year-old child, our friends kindly allowed him to take Becky out of her original packaging.
So do you think my son cherished this opportunity to bring diversity issues into his playtime? Did he break free from the shackles of our body-fascistic society to embrace the human form in all of its many wondrous shapes and sizes? No, of course not. Instead, he did what any other self-respecting three year-old boy would have done in the same situation: quick as a flash, he whipped down Becky’s leggings and giggled at her ginger ‘bits’.
Now without wanting to sound like a prude, I have to confess to being somewhat shocked at the state of Becky’s undercarriage. It’s been a very long time since I took a peek at a doll’s nether regions – let me assure you that it’s not something I make a habit of doing; I don’t spend my Saturday afternoons trawling my local toy shops wearing a dirty raincoat, trying to glimpse a bit of doll flesh – but as far as I can recall, the toys we had when I was growing up were nowhere near as anatomically accurate as Becky.
But the fun didn’t stop there. Oh no. Not content with defiling Becky in such a disgraceful way, my son’s razor-sharp child logic then demanded to know why she wasn’t wearing any underwear. How exactly was I meant to answer that one? Explain the fact that Becky going ‘commando’ didn’t necessarily make her a tart? Or tell him to avoid this sort of girl in later life?
Who knows – maybe Becky’s manufacturers wanted to make the point that disabled people can be just as promiscuous as anyone else? All that’s really needed to complete the seedy picture would be if she had one of those wheelchairs with the word ‘quickie’ emblazoned on the side.
I suppose the experience of playing with Share-a-Smile Becky could have been said to be educational for Tom, though not quite in the way her creators had originally intended. As for Becky herself, she may well have had the intention of sharing a damn sight more than just a smile…