For children with disabilities, toys that look like them

Anna Maria Civitella, an Occupational Therapist with CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, surrounded by the toys she collected for children at the Mackay Centre and Philip E. Layton Schools
Anna Maria Civitella, an Occupational Therapist with CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, surrounded by the toys she collected for children at the Mackay Centre and Philip E. Layton Schools

A few years ago, Anna Maria Civitella came to a realization: Children with disabilities didn’t often see themselves reflected in the toys they played with. No dolls with hearing aids, no teddy bears with feeding tubes, no action figures with leg braces.

So Ms. Civitella, an Occupational Therapist with our CIUSSS at the Mackay Centre and Philip E. Layton Schools, decided to do something about it.

In an initiative that consumed hours of her time and rallied support from several partners, her dream has become a reality. She’s collected more than 90 toys, incorporating a range of disabilities, for the children at the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce schools.

The project is about more than playthings for the schoolchildren, who have motor, visual, hearing and language impairments. To Ms. Civitella, the toys send a powerful message about acceptance and inclusion.

“They say that somebody made a toy that looks like you because you matter,” she says. “They say that you’re visible and you’re worthy of having a place in society.”

Getting to this point required perseverance. Movements such as Toy Like Me in the U.K. have been urging toymakers for years to produce items that better represent the estimated 150 million disabled children worldwide, but Ms. Civitella says such toys are still hard to come by. She spent months, often after work hours, scouring websites and visiting stores around Montreal.

Finally, in February, the project was ready to launch. The toys had been ordered, catalogued and placed into bins with help from Administrative Agent Bonny Benoît and Healthcare Technical Assistant Eric Kuchinsky. Then, on February 22, the toys were loaded onto trolleys and wheeled to classrooms—Barbie and Ken in wheelchairs, a surfer wearing a hearing aid, dolls led by guide dogs, a teddy bear with a back brace.

When the toys were unpacked, one look at the children’s faces told Ms. Civitella that her efforts had been worthwhile. A 5-year-old boy who uses a wheelchair and has a communication impairment spotted one of the dolls that wears a leg brace. His eyes opened wide. The boy pointed to his own legs, then to the doll, as a look of self-recognition lit up his face.

“I knew in that moment that he saw himself in that doll,” Ms. Civitella says. “It meant everything to me.”

In addition to being available during free play in the classroom, the toys can be used in therapy by the school’s psychologists, speech therapists, physiotherapists and other health professionals, who are team members in our CIUSSS’s Rehabilitation Program in Specialized Schools. Some of the toys were also placed in a display case in the facility’s entrance on Terrebonne Street.

In the longer term, Ms. Civitella dreams of acquiring more toys that would be available for a toy library so the children could borrow them for play at home.

The project involved teamwork and the collaboration of many partners. Alison Leduc, Ms. Civitella’s manager when the project began in 2020, offered encouragement and the go-ahead to develop the proposal. The Habilitas Foundation provided funding to purchase the toys, thanks to a donation from the Fednav Community Employee Committee. The teachers and administrators of the English Montreal School Board embraced the project, and orthotists from Action Ortho Santé in Montreal crafted doll-sized splints and foot braces.

Emily Lecker, Program Manager at our CIUSSS for the Rehabilitation Program in Specialized Schools, says Ms. Civitella deserves credit for bringing the project to fruition, however. “She had a vision from start to finish and showed amazing creativity and initiative,” she says, adding that the initiative highlights the dedication of CIUSSS staff to meeting clients’ needs.

“These toys promote a positive self-image,” Ms. Lecker says. “They help the children accept their differences and see that they don’t need to be limited by them in any way.”

For Ms. Civitella, it all comes down to doing what’s best for the children. She points out that a framework used in occupational therapy is “Doing, being, becoming, belonging.”

“As an OT, you really believe that everyone has dreams, and you help people achieve them,” she says, tears forming in her eyes. “The toys say to the children, ‘I belong in the world.’”