Q&A with Karen Newell- the Co Founder of ToyLikeMe

Firstly Karen thank you for agreeing to take part in this Q&A for the VICTA Parent Portal.

Can you just tell me a little bit about yourself and how you find yourself to be part of the VI community?

Hello my name is Karen, I am usually known as Fred and Eva’s mum. We moved back to York 7 years ago from London where I worked in children’s media and where the children were born. Fred was my second born, so I was pretty chilled about the 6 week check though I did wonder why his eyes were a bit wobbly. Luckily for us the GP picked up on it and within 3 months we had a diagnosis from Great Ormond St of F.E.V.R. Fred’s retinas hadn’t formed properly and were folded, he was registered as severely sight impaired (blind). We left with a heavy heart and an even heavier development journal to complete.

Although it hit us like a train, I think on retrospect having a diagnosis so early on from the best eye docs in the world was a blessing. I mourned the child I thought I had and then got on with getting to know this bundle of wobbly eyes better. Hungry for information on all things VI, I was fortunate to live near RNIB on Judd St. I talked my way onto the RNIB TA course and haven’t stopped learning.  Ironically, it is Fred that teaches me more than I can ever teach him.

Karen you are the moderator and creator of the ‘Playful Explorations for children with visual impairment’ and CO-founder of ‘Toy Like Me’- Can you tell me a little bit more about the inspiration for them both?

Playful Explorations

In my search for making play accessible and meaningful for my little VIP, I began searching on forums, Pinterest etc. I found that my Facebook page resembled more a recycled play scrap store. So I created a page to store them all just to remind me and my baby brain. I began to meet more people in our situation and thought, why not share the page and ask people to share their ideas too. I love it when people share their own ideas and creations they have made, especially when both parents and teachers share ideas.

Toy Like Me

Toy Like Me was created by my best friend, and Fred’s God Mother, Rebecca and myself in 2014. As new mums together in London, we had lived through the chaos of having 2 children quite close together. My daughter loved to bite her son, we shared snacks in Corams Fields come rain or shine. Rebecca was the first mum I went to after Fred’s diagnosis. In a fit of desperate ugly tears, I bawled “my son can’t see properly”. After a big hug she looked at me and said, “don’t worry I can’t see much, he will be alright”. I knew she was hearing impaired but I had never understood the extent of her dual sensory loss from Ushers. “But… but, I stuttered you were an ace BBC producer, a journalist, and are a great friend.” I had stumbled into the cliche of underestimating disabled people and although I didn’t know it then, this was where ToyLikeMe was conceived.

When Fred was diagnosed I thought it was a tragedy (yes I hate to admit but I did). What I slowly began to realise was that the tragedy was Fred being born into a world that didn’t positively represent him or his potential, dreams and ambitions. So as our lives moved on, and myself and Rebecca moved back to our home towns we vowed to set something up that would redress this. ToyLikeMe was born and developed virtually. As our children slept we would steal their toys and create new diverse characters with them. We shared them on a hastily created Facebook page in the hope toy manufacturers would listen.

Do you get many ideas yourself for you to do at home with Fred?

I cannot recycle anything that might have a tactile use! I am a nightmare. Oh an egg box or muffin tin would make a perfect braille cell. Oh that material would make a perfect tactile piece in a book. I love the fact that you can adapt mainstream toys and books to make them more accessible. My ultimate fave activity are story sacs. I have made Fred many along the way. The Tiger who came to tea is housed within a tiger striped mini suitcase with doll, tiger teases and cakes. Bedtimes used to take hours as both kids explored the sacs. The classic ones of Hungry Caterpillar and Gruffalo still make an appearance. My favourite one is Mole’s Sunrise now, which we have taken to local groups to share.

Toy Like Me is now a 42k strong community- can you tell me a little bit more about the biggest successes you feel have been achieved as a result of Toy Like Me?

ToyLikeMe has grown like a pebble in a pond, myself and Rebecca are still making the waves. There have been many different pebbles which have shaped ToyLikeMe. The Arts Council funding which curated the ToyBox Tales Exhibition that is now touring schools and hospitals. I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the School of Social Entrepreneurs which helped us create ToyLikeMe as a Community Interest Company. This unlocked a few funding pebbles like the Lottery which has enabled us to physically reach more people, create 3D printed prototypes and work with schools and play centres. Our work with toy manufacturers has been up and down. The biggest success for me is witnessing a child’s reaction when they see a toy that represents them. Their face says it all.

Can you tell me more about the £50k prize that Toy Like Me won?

What a night that was! Rebecca had applied late one night to the Persimmon awards. To be honest, she had put in so many applications it was getting us all down. We were thrilled when we heard that we were one of the 96 finalists and were invited to a Gala dinner in York. After badgering our followers for months for votes we waited and hoped we had all done enough. The guys and gals from Persimmon were the perfect hosts, they were rooting for us and to scoop second prize was a dream. For us it not only validated our purpose, it was an award for everyone who had voted. The £50k secures ToyLikeMe’s future for a couple of years, as we can get out and deliver workshops, exhibitions and most importantly meet the children and families.

Which is your favourite toy design that you have created to show an inclusive representation of disabilities for children?

It has to be Mia the Lottie doll who is a wildlife fanatic who wears a cochlear implant. Rebecca has always said she would have loved to have a ToyLikeMe growing up and here Mia is. Lottie Dolls is a wonderful independent toy company with a range a fab dolls including one who has autism. They worked with us when no-one else dared to and wore our first Loved by ToyLikeMe endorsement. We love them!

Lastly, what was be the best piece of advice you would give to a parent who is raising a child who has a visual impairment?

Enjoy exploring the world. Take their lead, they will teach you more than you ever teach them. Aim high. Get in touch with other families because together we are stronger.

To find out more about Toy Like Me, visit their website: www.toylikeme.org

More information about play and inclusive learning can be found on the Early Years area of the Portal.

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