A unique child: Disability Dolls - Face to face

Mary Evans
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Well-meaning early years settings may provide dolls like disabled children for the sake of inclusive practice, but it could end up doing more harm than good, as Mary Evans hears from the experts.

Disability dolls are of limited value in early years settings if practitioners are not trained to introduce them to the children appropriately, according to leading experts.

Research has found that children with little experience of disability do not understand the toys. They will, for example, use toy crutches as guns and hearing aids as headphones.

The advent of Down's syndrome dolls from America has prompted a debate about the appropriateness and effectiveness of disability dolls. Manufacturers argue that it can boost the self-esteem of a Down's child to be given a doll that shares his or her facial features. The counter-argument is that children with disabilities, including Down's syndrome, tend to see themselves as like everyone else, and these toys only serve to emphasise the difference.

'I think these dolls are good if they represent the children in a positive way,' says Babette Brown, consultant and trainer for Persona Dolls. 'There is a doll, for instance, that is supposed to be after undergoing chemotherapy, which is wonderful. If you are going to have these dolls, you need to make sure that the dolls actually represent the children.

'There is a doll I have seen on the internet which is supposed to be a black doll, but is just a white doll with the colour changed. The features have not been altered in any way. It is just a different colour, so it doesn't work at all.

'We were keen to offer other Persona dolls - for instance, a Down's syndrome doll - but we just couldn't get it right, so we decided it would be better not to do it.'

POOR PORTRAYAL

'Some of these dolls are a poor portrayal,' says Janice McKinley, an early years SENCO in Bradford. 'One is a doll in plastic, glued into a wheelchair. A little boy at a childminder's managed to unstick the doll and pull it out of the chair, but it is not a proper representation at all. I saw a catalogue where one of the dolls was a young child with a white stick and a guide dog, which is nonsensical. You would never see that.'

'A lot of parents are very unhappy with the disabled Down's syndrome dolls on the market,' says Ms Brown. 'They feel that the dolls just do not represent a Down's child.

'If they are not authentic, you can be sending out a negative message instead of the positive one you set out to give, both for the child the doll is representing, who has Down's syndrome, and for the other children, who are then receiving this mixed message.'

'There are some strange and weird things out there on the market,' says Ms McKinley. 'All with good intentions, I think, but there are some dolls which are misrepresentations.

'You have to be sensitive to the children and the parents. I wonder how much the companies have actually consulted before they have gone on the production line and put the dolls in the shops.'

'I think manufacturers sometimes play on people's insecurities with all the equipment that is marketed for the disabled,' says early years consultant Mary Dickins.

She believes much of the debate about disability dolls is about the quality of the product. But the real crux of the issue, she says, is how they are used.

'This is an important issue and there has hardly been any research on it. What happens with children with no awareness whatsoever is that if there is no context, they use the dolls as any old thing. They may say, "This is a funny doll".

'You need to introduce the doll in a context. Maybe you are raising issues about disability because you have a certain child joining the setting, or you want to raise awareness generally. The context is really important. It is all about how to introduce them and monitor them.

'Maybe for a child at home, one of these dolls that looks like themselves is really effective in raising their self-esteem. If you introduce this sort of doll in a setting the child attends and you do not do it appropriately, it may not be so helpful.

'It depends on how they are used, the quality of the product, and the context in which they are introduced. Young children might not perceive themselves as different. Research seems to show that most young children set no odds on meeting another difference. They are aware of difference but they are not attaching any value system to that difference - that is what adults do.'

'The main aim of work on disability equality is to ensure that disabled people are included in all areas of life,' says Ms McKinley. 'Only inclusion will reduce the fear and prejudice that result from lack of contact.

'Research shows that using dolls and small-world toys, when not part of an overall strategy of awareness-raising, contributes little to developing a positive sense of self-esteem in children with disabilities or creating an understanding and appreciation of disabled children in non-disabled children. In the long term, will the fact that a child has played with a doll depicting a hearing impairment encourage the child to feel more comfortable when they meet a deaf child?'

IN ISOLATION

Mary Dickins and Judy Denziloe drew up guidelines on the use of disability toys in their book All Together - How to create inclusive services for disabled children and their families, in which they warn that the toys will be of limited value if used in isolation. They write, 'Research carried out by Save the Children raised concerns about the effectiveness of "disability toys" and showed a contrast in how the toys were used by different groups of children (Pettit and Laws, 1997). Children who had some experience of disability (usually because they had a disabled relative) would make appropriate use of the dolls and their equipment (wheelchair, crutches and hearing aid) and relate them to their own experience.

'But children who had little knowledge of disability tended to use the wheelchair as a roller skate, the crutches as guns and identify the hearing aid as a Walkman. If they mentioned disability, they seemed to equate it with illness and with temporary disability, such as a broken leg, from which the doll would recover.

'This suggests that simply placing a doll in a wheelchair in the home corner is unlikely to contribute to an increase in the children's awareness and appreciation of diversity. The disability toys, and disabled dolls in particular, need a context if they are to be successful.'

POSITIVE TRAINING

Shubhi Raymond, an advisory teacher on inclusion in Haringey, London, says, 'We bought a disabled doll that we can loan to settings to use. If we are doing training with disability dolls, we would do it along the lines of Persona doll training, where you focus on the doll and the doll's life story, rather than making the disability the focus.'

Ms McKinley says, 'You need to link the use of the dolls with some positive equality training, so that you feel confident as a practitioner and understand why you are using them. They are bound to provoke questions and discussions. You need to be confident beforehand that you will be able to say the right things.'

Ms Brown agrees. 'Even with a good product, what really matters is how it is introduced. That is paramount.' LINKS TO EYFS GUIDANCE

- UC 1.2 Inclusive Practice

- PR 2.1 Respecting Each Other

- EE 3.2 Supporting Every Child.

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