Why do you never see a Lego mini-figure with a disability? | Rebecca Atkinson

The world’s largest toy company is excluding 150 million disabled children by failing to positively represent them in its products

How many Lego mini-figures live on your street? With a planet-wide population of 4 billion, there are sure to be a few plastic folk nestling down the back of a sofa near you. But for all the mini-figures in the world, Lego does not produce a single one with a wheelchair or a disability.

When the seed of Lego (Danish for “play well”) was first planted back in the 1930s by Danish philanthropist Ole Kirk Kristiansen, the company’s vision was to cultivate creative play and contribute towards healthy child development. Today, Lego is the largest toy company in the world with annual sales topping £2.8bn. It’s a sprawling super-brand with tentacles not just in the brick box, but also suckering on to films, games, merchandising, leisure and publishing to create an all-permeating brand experience that is hard to escape.

But the brand continues to exclude 150 million disabled children worldwide by failing to positively represent them in its products.

Thanks to the Disability Discrimination Act, disabled children can no longer be refused entry to toy shops, schools or soft play centres on the grounds of their wheelchair being a fire hazard or bothersome to other children. In terms of ramps, lifts and buildings constructed with equality in mind, the country has never been more accessible. But what about the rights of disabled children to be positively represented in the cultural sphere? To see their lives and experiences reflected in the media they consume?

There is an irony in the fact that toy shops are legally bound to consider the access of their disabled customers, while the products inside, created by huge companies that profit from the entertainment and education of our children, have no legal duty to consider how they represent disabled children and can therefore continue to culturally marginalise them.

The #ToyLikeMe campaign I co-founded in April this year, to call on the global toy industry to start representing disability, marks a progression in disabled rights movements from calling for access to a call for cultural representation.

While Lego’s London offices will be legally bound to have wheelchair access, the brand is under no obligation to factor in representations of disabled access in its model buildings or include disabled characters in its much-loved mini-figure range, so it just doesn’t do it. Why not? Does there come a point when a brand becomes so large, with so much cultural influence, that it has a moral duty to include disability?

The practicalities of capitalist market forces, the need to make a profit, perhaps determine this exclusion. It’s arguable that wheelchair figures are likely to sell in small quantities and could be considered niche products, but is there not also a counter argument that brands as large as Lego can, or should, soak up small sales in exchange for the greater good?

In response to a 19,000-strong change.org petition calling on Lego to act, Lego said: “The beauty of the Lego system is that children may choose how to use the pieces we offer to build their own stories.”

Indeed you can create wheelchairs with Lego parts and there are independent businesses in existence that create and sell wheelchairs for mini-figures. But is this the same as the world’s largest toy brand getting behind the issue and including a guide dog user in the Lego City sets or factoring wheelchair access into an aeroplane design? It’s the power of the brand that is crucial.

Is Lego worried consumers will be turned off if it aligns itself with the image of disability? It’s a hard question to answer honestly, but is there something considered inherently aesthetically displeasing about disability, something that makes us want to turn away, and causes toy brands such as Lego to give it the swerve through a fear of damaging sales? Or is it fearful of getting it wrong? Stereotyping is an easy trap to fall into and in July this year Lego’s Duplo range, aimed at pre-schoolers, issued a wheelchair, made from grey plastic and marketed alongside a figure of an elderly man, encouraging an enduring assumption that disability is the preserve of the elderly despite there being 770,000 disabled children in the UK alone.

Perhaps Lego thinks children don’t want to play with disabled toys?

In 1930s and 1940s America, a study was undertaken by African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to look at children’s self-perception in relation to race. Their seminal doll experiments asked children to choose between a black and a white doll. The study found that all the children (regardless of their own race) had a preference for the white doll. The Clarks argued that these findings exposed internalised racism in African-American children, and led to psychological research into areas of self-esteem and self-concept.

Toy brands such as Lego take pride in consulting children during their product development but if children don’t choose disabled toys, does that mean we shouldn’t make them? Lego and the global toy industry need to recognise they are excluding some children, and commit to ways to change that.

While most toy companies would argue that they are inclusive and that everyone is welcomed to play with their toys, what they seem slower to grasp is what it means to represent disability, both for disabled children themselves and for their non-disabled peers. This is more than just about sales figures or disability access, it’s about changing cultural perceptions. It’s about brands such as Lego using their vast power of influence to positive effect.

For a child with a disability it would be hugely affirming to be reflected by a brand such as Lego. It tells them that the brand is behind them, believes in them, and that they are part of the mainstream. For children without a disability, seeing a brand such as Lego celebrate human difference helps to create a more positive attitude when they meet someone with an impairment in real life. It’s a win-win situation – only Lego doesn’t seem to want to play.

• Vote for the #ToyLikeMe Wheelchair Santa on Lego Ideas. If it receives 10,000 votes Lego will consider it for production. Find #ToyLikeMe on Facebook here

Contributor

Rebecca Atkinson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How Lego lost its innocence | Sue Palmer
Sue Palmer: Child’s play is now big business. Lego abused our trust with cynical marketing and toys that limit development – then it did a deal with Shell

Sue Palmer

08, Aug, 2014 @7:00 AM

Article image
Lego Friends petition: why feminists should think twice before they sign | Hannah Betts
Hannah Betts: Thousands have signed a petition against the new 'sexist' Lego Friends range – but is it ever right to police children's play?

Hannah Betts

04, Sep, 2012 @7:17 PM

Article image
Lego unveils first ever minifigure in wheelchair
Images taken at the Nuremberg toy fair by fan group Promobricks show a wheelchair-using Lego figurine, complete with helper dog, following #ToyLikeMe equality campaign

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

27, Jan, 2016 @4:21 PM

Article image
Education needs a Lego moment – more fun and fewer pointless targets | Gaby Hinsliff
The Let Our Kids be Kids protesters may be wrong about Sats, but we desperately need to bring the joy back into learning

Gaby Hinsliff

06, May, 2016 @5:00 AM

Article image
Lego people are right to be angry – they have to live with Barbie | Ed Mayo
Ed Mayo: Lego faces are getting angrier – but parents should be more concerned about gender stereotyping in their children's toys

Ed Mayo

12, Jun, 2013 @3:16 PM

Article image
The Lego prosthetic arm that children can create and hack themselves
Carlos Arturo Torres has designed a modular system that lets kids programme their own prosthetics – and this is only the start of toy-based body parts

Oliver Wainwright

22, Jul, 2015 @12:57 PM

Article image
Outrageous gender stereotypes go well beyond Lego | Letters
Letters: Rose Caldwell calls for everyone to play their part in ridding society of gender inequalities that stop girls and women from fulfilling their potential. Plus Jill Wallis on her experience of buying a card

Letters

12, Oct, 2021 @5:19 PM

Article image
The toy industry shuts out children with disabilities. We want to change that | Rebecca Atkinson
The public response to the Toy Like Me campaign’s inspiring new dolls has been huge. But the business’s big players have yet to meet our challenge

Rebecca Atkinson

18, May, 2015 @11:09 AM

Article image
Lego school promises the building blocks to successful learning

Danish firm brings its research into child development as well as cash to new Billund venture centred on inquiry-based education

Helen Russell in Billund

22, Apr, 2013 @4:29 PM

Article image
Move over Barbie: the cool kids are playing with Lego paleontologists

Zoe Williams: This week, Lego unveiled its first range of female scientists. The set sold out in three days. But is this really the end of the tyranny of pink, when little girls can pretend to be paleontologists instead of princesses?

Zoe Williams

09, Aug, 2014 @7:00 AM