Special Needs Children: Brands Struggle To Reach Out To A Growing
Reprint of article from Youth
Markets Alert (June1, 2010). Reprinted with
permission of EPM Communications, Inc.
There are more than seven million
children aged 6-17 living with disabilities in the U.S., ranging from
speech impediments to mental retardation, according to the U.S.
Department of Education. Many companies and brands find reaching out to
this group a tricky situation since they are unsure whether to celebrate
(or acknowledge) these children’s differences or to treat them as
they treat other kids.
The Toy Industry Foundation (TIF)
publication Let’s Play: A Guide to Toys for Children with
Special Needs (PDF) offers parents, caregivers, and the
general public recommendations and assistance about selecting toys for a
child with special needs.
An electronic copy can be downloaded from the TIF website by following
the link above.
To receive single or bulk orders of these free
brochures, complete the online
publication request form. There is no minimum or maximum
Although no company has gone so far as to feature a disabled child on
traditional food or toy packaging, there have been major strides in
recent years towards representing a more diverse culture. Toys R Us, in
particular, has incorporated children with special needs into its
marketing materials, and has been providing a special toy guide for
“differently-abled kids” for the past 20 years. Its current
campaign features entertainer Whoopi Goldberg.
Toy makers are not involved in Toys R Us’ selection process,
and do not advertise their inclusion in the guide on their packaging.
Failure to spotlight the unique attributes of these toys is a missed
opportunity on the part of toy manufacturers.
TV programming has also begun incorporating special needs characters
into storylines. PBS’s Arthur series, for instance,
currently features a storyline about Asperger’s Syndrome and
friendship. Arthur Executive Producer Jacqui Deegan says the show
“will help [children and parents] gain some understanding of
Asperger’s Syndrome and other forms of autism and realize that the
unique traits of individuals are what make them so special.”
Sesame Street continues to include children with special
The print industry has been one of the more progressive industries
regarding the representation of children with special needs.
Babytalk magazine has featured children with Down syndrome on
two of its covers. “The most moving feedback was from moms with
special needs children, who thanked us for finally giving them the
opportunity to see their children reflected in a major parenting
magazine. [Other] moms appreciated what we were trying to do by
recognizing children who were not typically featured,” says
Parenting magazine’s Susan Kane.
Parents Prefer Products, Not Funding
Parenting magazine has regularly featured layouts with children
in wheelchairs. These layouts acknowledge no differences between the
wheelchair-bound kids and their able-bodied counterparts on the
Likewise, a print advertisement by Kaiser Permanente showcases an
intergenerational family portrait that includes a family with a kid with
Down Syndrome. (The ad also features a gay couple and an interracial
couple). The remarkable aspect is in its normalcy and unnoticeable
inclusion of these “different” families.
Although there is no “right” way to reach special needs
children and their parents, some efforts are more effective than others.
Parent advocates cite companies that license their characters to
products, such as wheelchairs, braces, and hearing aids, to be highly
desired by their kids. To parents, this type of support is more valuable
than companies donating money to their causes. ”It turns a product
into something that my child doesn’t mind showing off,” said
SpongeBob Hearing Aids
Starkey recently struck a deal with Nickelodeon to feature characters
from its popular shows, including SpongeBob, iCarly, and
Dora the Explorer, exclusively on its pediatric hearing aids.
The products launch this month. Although pediatric aids have long been
available in generic shapes, interest from audiologists has been
Similarly, Siemens offers an exclusive Disney Pediatric Kit for
parents and children. The free kit includes a Mickey Mouse plush toy,
Disney storybook, and carry case to teach children how to use and care
for their hearing aids.
CONTACTS AND CONNECTIONS:
Data Accountability Center, U.S. Department of Education,
Danielle Crain, Technical Assistance Specialist, 1600 Research Blvd.,
Rockville,MD 20850; 301-610-8805; email@example.com; www.ideadata.org.
Nickelodeon, Leigh Anne Brodsky, President Consumer Products, 1515
Broadway, 42nd Fl., New York, NY 10036; 212-258-
Parenting Group, Susan Kane, Editorial Director, 2 Park Ave., 10th
Fl., New York, NY 10016; 212-779-5264; firstname.lastname@example.org;
Siemens Hearing Instruments, Thomas Powers, VP Audiology, 10
Constitution Ave., Piscataway, NJ 08854; 732-562-6600;
Starkey, Erin Kelly, Marketing, 6700 Washington Ave., S.,Eden
Prairie, MN 55344; 952-941-6401; email@example.com; www.starkey.com
Toys ‘R’ Us, Greg Ahearn, SVP Marketing & E-Commerce,
1 Geoffrey Way, Wayne, NJ 07470; 973-617-3500;
WGBH Enterprises (Arthur), Jacqui Deegan, Executive Product, One
Guest St., Boston, MA 02135; 617-300-5400; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.wgbh.org