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.
This article first appeared on Guardian Online 22/12/15