Plastic figures to prosthetic legs: How Lego’s revolutionary move can teach us a thing or two about embracing diversity

(Published in The Times of India: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/shaira-mohan-blog/)

Sometimes the smallest, most inane things have a way of touching our lives and opening our eyes in the profoundest of ways.
And sometimes it is the bigger, more conspicuous things and beings that tend to disappoint and cause a world of pain.
Recently, the Danish retail giant Lego’s unprecedented move of introducing a Lego mini-figure man in a wheelchair sporting a beanie cap and hoodie has garnered a nod of appreciation worldwide. In their effort to acknowledge the existence of children with disabilities – something that has been largely absconding from the purview of toy manufacturers and the industry as a whole – Lego has sent a strong message of inclusion and further strengthened their number 1 position in the list of the world’s most powerful brands this year, replacing the likes of Ferrari to bag this coveted spot in 2015.
The little plastic man has unwittingly caused a stir of mountainous proportions, only proving what an inch-tall plastic figure can accomplish with the right intentions. Parents, disability activists and children alike are all praises for this step taken by the toy giant that shows kids with disabilities that they have not been forgotten.
Where a plastic man on a wheelchair is making waves and winning hearts wordlwide, a 24-year old girl from Mumbai had her real life prosthetic leg removed at the Mumbai airport in a humiliating and grossly insensitive incident that has left her with a scar which is likely much bigger than the one on her leg. Antara Malang had her leg amputated as a result of an accident and is required to wear a prosthetic leg. Instead of extending the due courtesies to an individual with a disability as most airport officials do, Mumbai airport officials seem to be turning a blind eye to her repeatedly and heartlessly forcing her to remove the prosthetic leg for security scans instead of using the hand-held detectors that other airports frequently use in such cases.
A comparison of the two news items puts a lot of things into perspective. While companies like Lego are recognizing and addressing the need for diversity-awareness and incorporating such efforts in to their brand vision and manufacturing, it throws light on the abysmal lack of empathy and ignorance towards the same issue in service sectors like the airports where the need for such empathy is, in fact, the most. Even brands like Barbie owned by Mattel Inc. have embraced the idea of inclusion of a different kind of physicality – that of people with curvy, round figures as opposed to their signature skinny, blonde dolls. In January 2016, Barbie introduced three new sized dolls – petite, curvy, tall and dark-skinned being some of their new additions. Lets not forget the Barbie dolls in Burkhas that went on sale for a Sotheby’s charity auction back in 2009 in Italy for Save The Children.The senior VP of Mattel Inc, Evelyn Mazacco says,”We believe we have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty.” A tip of the hat to you, madam.
And yet, in our own backyard, such acts of kindness are unable to reach girls like Antara Maleng after she repeatedly writes letters of complaints to the Mumbai airport authorities, having to undergo this ordeal each time. It is difficult to swallow such incidents of apathy in a land where the likes of Sudha Chandran flourished and were celebrated with admiration and pride. Surely, rules and regulations can be followed with a little more dignity and respect towards a person’s unfortunate shortcomings.
While I applaud the efforts and new endeavours being undertaken by brands like Lego and Barbie in sending messages of diversity and cultural inclusion, I am saddened by the lack of it that makes the news in our neck of the woods. It reflects poorly on us as a society and furthers the already fledgling plight of the state of many women with disabilities in our country that are thrown into mental institutions or isolated instead of being encouraged and accepted.
Companies and organisations in India are increasingly opening up to the idea of diversity but the road is still a long one rife with many hurdles to be overcome. Much is to be learnt from girls like Antara who hold their own even in such difficult times and fight for a cause.
It is high time we pick their corner and fight for them too.

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