At a recent conference for visually impaired people, a product developer for Playability Toys tossed a ball to a little girl who is blind. The girl caught the ball, and immediately her mother began to cry.
It was the first time her daughter had caught a ball.
"The ball she caught is easy to grab, and the crinkly sound promotes auditory tracking," says Adam Small, CEO of Playability Toys. "All our toys feature that level of detail."
The Birth of a Toy Company
In 2002, the parents of a boy approached Bud Fraze, an aerospace engineer who dabbled in toy development. They asked him to design a ball that their son, who was blind, could enjoy. They wanted a ball that was easy to catch and made sound without requiring batteries. Fraze designed what is now called the Rib-It-Ball, and Playability Toys was born. The company has since branched out into games, sensory plush toys, embossed coloring sets and more.
Small says the special needs community is underserved when it comes to toys.
"One in six children is diagnosed with a developmental disability, and not many toy companies focus on this," he says. "A child with sensory dysfunction needs to engage with toys early on."
Special Toys for Special Needs
Under the guidance of parents, teachers and therapists, Playability produces toys that provide visual stimulation for visually impaired children, tactile stimulation for children on the autism spectrum, and toys that make sounds for auditory stimulation. The toys also promote independent play and social interaction, which can be challenging for children with autism.
"The longer you can engage a child with autism, the better you can work on skills," Small says.
Small says surprises encourage children to explore and serve as rewards. For instance, the company's most popular puppet features a squeaky hand a therapist can squeeze for a fun reward and a "secret" Velcro patch that kids like to touch.
"For a child on the verge of a meltdown, that type of repetitive motion can help," Small says.
Professionals value the toys for their unique benefits.
"In my classroom for students with multiple disabilities, it is often the right toy that allows a peer to join in the individual's form of play," says Ivy Kardes, a national board-certified teacher and exceptional-needs specialist in Olympia, Washington. "Once that peer connects with that student at their level, the openness to experiences, motivation to learn and ability to connect with more and more of the world around them increases tenfold."
Kardes also stresses that it's important to make these types of toys available to as many children as possible.
"A toy can make any person of any age or ability level want to keep growing and learning," she says. "Try finding a new toy that is fun for you as a unique person, and you will see exactly why every individual across the spectrum of abilities and disabilities deserves quality toys made with their unique self in mind."
Spreading Its Scope
Playability's website allows parents—as well as therapists, companies and hospitals—to shop according to special need, including autism, visual impairment, deafness and hard of hearing, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and more. Small says a great deal of crossover between abilities exists, and the toys are also popular among children with typical development.
"Many children like toys that are engaging and promote sensory exploration and feature sounds and varied textures," he says.
Small says the company is opening an online storefront to sell even more toys. It also is planning to release a paint-by-numbers activity soon that features Braille for visually impaired children.