The holidays are just around the corner, so I know the Information Center will be receiving inquiries from people concerned about giving appropriate toys to children with vision loss. Being visually impaired since birth, and having received my fair share of good and bad gifts, I wanted to offer advice on what to buy and what to avoid.
The first thing to do when selecting a gift for a visually impaired child is to research the child's interests. Every child has his or her own likes and dislikes; all blind children don't like the same things. Your totally blind nephew may love toy cars, but your grandson with low vision may not.
When actually giving the gift, keep in mind the wrapping paper, gift tag, and card can be just as important to a child with vision loss as a fully sighted child. Take all the senses into consideration when wrapping, like using textured paper and bows to be explored by touch or use scented stickers with a holiday theme like hot cocoa, evergreen tree, gingerbread, or peppermint. Adding a large print or braille gift tag so the child can pick out his or her own present from the pile, will be appreciated as well. Consider purchasing musical holiday greeting cards or one in an alternate format. Hallmark and American Greetings offer cards in braille in some of their retail store locations and on their web sites. Companies that specialize in products for the visually impaired offer accessible greeting cards as well.
Stuffed Animals, Dolls, and Action Figures
Almost any item in this category is one hundred percent accessible out of the box, just remember to think about the other senses when selecting the gift. For example, choose stuffed animals with various textures of fur—silky, rough, and curly—and those with various stuffing materials like beans, cotton, and crinkly paper.
Most visually impaired kids will love interactive items in this category, like the Let's Rock Elmo that talks, sings, and comes with a microphone, tambourine, and drums. The Fijit Friends line of robots will keep a child busy for hours, since they can sing, dance, respond to 30 different words and phrases in 100 different ways, have soft skin that responds to a child's touch, and have beat-detection software that allows them to respond to slow or fast music. The Hasbro Furreal Friends line of interactive pets uses animatronics and sensory technology with touch and voice recognition to mimic the behavior of real cats and dogs. If you are looking for a unique educational gift, consider the Braille Learning Doll, available through various vendors including Independent Living Aids. On the doll's torso is a braille cell made of six buttons that can be depressed to form all the braille letters.
Be cautious when buying these toys from a regular store, since many contain many visual elements that are difficult to see, even for a child with some usable vision. Think about the low contrast between a black checker on a black square of the checkerboard or the black dots found on a black pair of dice. Also, games may feature small print or hard-to-see font styles, like italics. One option is to see if vendors of adaptive products, like MaxiAids, sell an accessible version. They offer talking, tactile, large print, high contrast, and braille games, including Monopoly, Scrabble, Battleship, chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe, dice, dominos, UNO, and Phase 10.
Another option is to purchase the regular version of a game and make it accessible yourself using common items. A hot glue gun easily creates tactile lines on a Chutes and Ladders board; different shaped tactile markers on a Twister board will differentiate among colors.
Lastly, there are some mainstream games that are accessible out-of-the-box, like the musical hot potato game from FUNDEX, where you pass the potato among the group, trying to not have it in your possession when the music stops. A new game for the 2011 holiday season is Pumpaloons, where the players pump up their three-foot tall balloon by stomping, punching, or sitting on it. Whoever fills their balloon up the fastest is the winner. Readers may be familiar with the Bop-It; for those not familiar with how it works, players must manipulate the Bop-It device based on its spoken commands like "bop," "shake," "pull," "twist," "flick," or "spin." The goal is to perform a set number of consecutive commands correctly. There are several difficulty levels to choose from, so the game can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. This year Hasbro has launched a new version, the Bop-It XT.
While not fully accessible, many of the games that require teams, like Trivial Pursuit, can still be enjoyed by children who are visually impaired. Sighted players can deal with the visual aspects, like reading question cards and manipulating game pieces, but the person with vision loss can verbally provide answers.
Arts and Crafts
Many visually impaired children like to draw, and you can make this activity accessible by purchasing a raised-line drawing kit. One of the most practical is sold through Future Aids. This kit uses a regular pencil and paper; many similar products require the use of expensive drawing sheets. Coloring can be made accessible as well. If your gift recipient is unable to differentiate colors from one another, choose The Nickelodeon Dora Talking I-Crayons set, which comes with a device that announces and spells each color in English and Spanish. Scented markers—blueberry for blue, grape for purple, lemon for yellow—are another way to make colors accessible. Braille Shop sells raised-line versions of coloring books, which children with low vision may also enjoy, since the illustrations found in regular coloring books are often highly detailed and difficult to see.
There are numerous choices for 3-D art. Almost every kid loves Play Doh, modeling clay, silly putty, and the many new types of sculpting materials found in stores today. Choose materials with various textures and scents for a multi-sensory experience. Label each container with its color name in braille for totally blind kids.
The Alex line of craft kits are very popular and can make wonderful presents, but they should be purchased with caution since an investment of time is required to make them properly accessible. There is a huge variety to choose from, including loom weaving, sewing, quilt making, embroidery, flip-flop and jewelry box decorating, and bead art. You will have to read the instructions to the child, and take the time to verbally and tactually walk through each step of the process. To gain a better understanding of how to teach this kind of activity to a child, read this FamilyConnect article on hand-over-hand and hand-under-hand techniques.
Sports and Outdoor Recreation
You will need to know the athletic ability of the child in order to purchase a gift from this category. Shop vendors of adaptive products for audible varieties of sports equipment with bells or beepers. Regulation-size basketballs, kickballs, baseballs, soccer balls, Frisbees, footballs, a tennis set, and volleyball are all available. For children with low vision, consider buying equipment that have built-in LED lights or that glow in the dark. Brookstone and Fly by Night Sports offer a wide selection.
Bicycles come in many adapted versions. The Buddy Bike is a modified tandem where the person steering it rides in the back instead of the front. This bike is a great option for those who have physical impairments accompanying sight loss, but the bike can be enjoyed by any small child and offers the option to pedal along with the sighted driver. A second option for smaller children is a bike trailer, a device that connects a child's bike to an adult bicycle. The WeeRide Co-Pilot Bicycle Trailer allows the child to pedal but not steer. An option for older kids and teenagers is a tandem bicycle. I owned one as a teenager, and was somewhat self-conscious about using it until I found out that every person in the neighborhood wanted one.
A unique recreation item is the Audio Dart Master, a dart board designed specifically for people with vision loss. It has a tactile front panel with large symbols, speaks every action in a human sounding voice, will speak each player's name and score, and even has an audible cue to help players aim for the bull's eye.
Almost all of the items in this gigantic category are accessible to visually impaired kids. Playsets have the added benefit of being educational by representing the visual environment and teaching daily living skills the child will need as an adult.
A child may not be able to see well enough to learn about animals from going to the zoo, but he or she can gain knowledge from animal playsets. Buy sets that depict a wide variety of types in a given category, such as jungle, sea life, reptiles, and farm animals. Also consider getting a set of the same species, such as a set of dogs, that include the various shapes of a large number of breeds. Try to find sets that are scaled correctly—the giraffe is much taller than the turtle, etc.
Even though they may not be able to drive when older, kids enjoy vehicle sets. Buy a set with a car, van, and pickup truck. Or a construction set with a bulldozer and crane. Or a set of services vehicles that include a fire truck, ambulance, and police car. Kids can learn about daily living skills like cooking, cleaning, and home repair with play sets?just remember you may have to show them how to hold the toy correctly and go through the proper motions. I like the Peel 'n Play Veggie set and Fun with Fruit set manufactured by Small World Living, because they are very realistic and teach table manners and knife skills. The vegetables and fruit are held together by Velcro, and can be "peeled" or "cut" by pulling the pieces apart.
I hope these ideas have made it easier for you to select a toy for the child with vision loss on your list. You can select gifts from a wide variety of categories, with the possibilities being almost limitless.
Last year's November AccessWorld featured another accessible toy article, Accessible Toys for the Young and Young at Heart, by J.J. Meddaugh, which gives options that are still popular for this year:
Exceptional Teaching Aids sells a wide variety of toys for children with special needs.
Check out the accessible toys from American Printing House for the Blind, many of which are educational.
LS&S sells adapted board, card, and other games and toys.