Special Needs Children: Brands Struggle To Reach Out To A Growing Niche

Reprint of article from Youth Markets Alert (June1, 2010).  Reprinted with permission of EPM Communications, Inc. 

ImageThere 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 order. 

‘Differently-Abled Kids’
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 needs regularly.

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 following page.

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 one parent.

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.

Data Accountability Center, U.S. Department of Education, Danielle Crain, Technical Assistance Specialist, 1600 Research Blvd., Rockville,MD 20850; 301-610-8805; daniellecrain@westat.com; www.ideadata.org.

Nickelodeon, Leigh Anne Brodsky, President Consumer Products, 1515 Broadway, 42nd Fl., New York, NY 10036; 212-258-
7066; leighanne.brodsky@nick.com; www.nick.com.

Parenting Group, Susan Kane, Editorial Director, 2 Park Ave., 10th Fl., New York, NY 10016; 212-779-5264; susan.kane@bonniercorp.com; www.parenting.com.

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; erin_kelly@starkey.com; www.starkey.com

Toys ‘R’ Us, Greg Ahearn, SVP Marketing & E-Commerce, 1 Geoffrey Way, Wayne, NJ 07470; 973-617-3500;
ahearng@toysrus.com; www.toysrus.com

WGBH Enterprises (Arthur), Jacqui Deegan, Executive Product, One Guest St., Boston, MA 02135; 617-300-5400; jacqui_deegan@wgbh.org; www.wgbh.org