Since setting up her Etsy store in 2017, she has sold over 2,000 modified dolls featuring insulin pumps, limb differences, hearing aids, cleft palates, and more.
The holiday season is upon us once again and parents with young kids now face the daunting task of finding the perfect gift for their little ones. While dolls are a popular choice, there aren't a lot of inclusive options available out there and parents are left to pick from the same old generic, blue-eyed, white-skinned dolls that fit society's idea of what is "perfect." Enter UK-based Clare Tawell who, upon recognizing the glaring lack of inclusivity in the market, set out to fill the gap herself. The mother-of-two is behind the one-woman, home-based operation called Bright Ears UK, which offers adorable inclusive dolls for young kids who are disabled or possibly battling an ongoing illness that alters their appearance.
The 39-year-old, who is a medical radiation technologist by profession, spends her free time modifying dolls with unique elements that match a child's medical condition. Tawell started the non-profit Bright Ears UK after she wasn't able to find any dolls with hearing aids for her four-year-old daughter, Matilda, who had one fitted as a baby. "I became really disheartened when I couldn't find a doll or any toy with hearing aids," she told TODAY. "It felt to me that society didn't deem her important and therefore she shouldn't be 'acknowledged.'"
Upon giving the doll to her daughter, Tawell said she "could tell [Matilda] 'got' what the doll was about because she kept touching the doll's hearing aids and then her own hearing aids." Soon she began receiving requests for similar dolls from mothers she'd met at the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS) and "it kind of snowballed from there... It is incredibly empowering for them. So, my range of dolls quickly expanded, and I'm still expanding them now to include as many medical conditions as possible." Speaking to BBC, she said: "I'm not doing it to make money. This is just fulfilling the need that isn't being met."
Since setting up her Etsy store in 2017, Tawell has sold over 2,000 modified dolls featuring insulin pumps, limb differences, hearing aids, cleft palates, and more. She also has a holiday special offering of modified elf dolls that can be customized as per each child's requirement. She uses the British-based elf called "Elves Behavin' Badly," which Tawell says is "very much behind" what she does. "We still live in a world that puts great emphasis on 'being normal,' so if you have a physical/visible difference you are often made to feel abnormal," she said.
"To a child, this can really affect their self-confidence and esteem. When they go into a toy shop and see dolls with all 'normal' features it only strengthens the feeling of not belonging or feeling like the odd one out. I want to change that," added Tawell, who is also training to be a sign language interpreter. She revealed that over the years she has also had nurseries and schools buying dolls from her to help "bring up the subject of inclusiveness amongst their children; this is great because hopefully, these children will grow into adults who do not judge a person by how they look."
While Tawell tries to be as diverse and inclusive with her collection, she recently addressed the issue of ethnic differentiation in the dolls which are mostly White with a few Black exceptions. "Unfortunately there is a great lack of dolls made by manufacturers of other ethnicities. When I adapt dolls, I need to be able to take them apart so that I can safely attach devices and a lot of the available dolls do not allow me to do this. It is very much an ongoing process to increase the diversity of dolls offered at BrightEars," she wrote on Facebook. "I would like it if toy manufactures could take my idea and run it with and make it more mainstream and accessible," she said.
"I would love for children in the future to be able to go into a shop and see dolls with hearing aids and cleft lips net to the regular dolls, because then it makes it normal, not different. When people see these dolls, it can open up a dialogue and increase awareness and understanding of these differences," Tawell added. "I know first-hand how special and empowering these dolls can be to children."