Santa's Assistive Little Helpers

Children with special needs need special toys, so here's a quick guide to some neat and nifty gift ideas for disabled youngsters

By Suzanne Robitaille

For kids, the holidays are always an exhilarating time, a day's pass into the world of play. But children with disabilities sometimes get the short end of the stick, as many best-selling toys like bicycles, books, and balls aren't accessible to them. A little informed shopping, however, can turn up wonderful toys and games for kids with vision, hearing, or mobility difficulties.

A tip: Try to remember all of the senses when you're out shopping. For vision-impaired kids, the Toy Industry Assn. recommends playthings that talk or produce sounds and feature a variety of interesting surfaces and textures, like talking dolls. Kids with hearing problems will benefit most from visual, hands-on toys like molding clay and puzzles. Mobility-challenged youngsters will appreciate switch-adapted dolls that can be turned off and on with a head switch rather than with hands, and stable-surface toys suitable for a desktop or on the floor.

Most adaptive toy companies have print and/or online catalogs. Toys R Us (TOY ) also puts out a print-only Guide for Differently-Abled Kids. Send an e-mail to ( Toys R Us customer service), or write to P.O. Box 8501, Nevada, Iowa 50201. Toy Manufacturers of America ( has a comprehensive Web site that lists popular adapted toys including Hasbro and Fisher Price brands.

Here's a special needs "wish list" to get you started.

Books: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ($7, Amazon) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ($21, Amazon). Shel Silverstein's poetry collections ($18 National Braille Press)

Sports and Balls: Floor Basketball Game ($59, Dragonfly Toys) is portable and designed for people who play while sitting.

The Economy Bowling Balls Pusher ($59, Dragonfly Toys) is a triangular steel aid that lets kids with reduced strength or mobility go bowling. The guide rests on the floor, centering the ball. Jump rope ($4, Great American Trading Co.)

Nobbie Gertie Ball ($6, Small World Toys) is a tactile ball that's easy to throw, catch, and kick. Sound Around Hoop ($13, Hasbro) is a body hoop that plays 14 backbeats and features a funky sound effect each time it hits the player's hip.

Bowling Ball Pusher, $59  

Music: Extreme Bop It ($25, Hasbro), an enhanced version of the original talking headphones, where kids compete to the beat as the spoken and musical commands test their reflexes.

Two-in-one Bach to Rock Guitar ($25, Fisher Price) lets kids play favorite pieces by themselves by using either the violin bow or strumming the guitar. The instrument plays three classical pieces from Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach in addition to three rock 'n' roll hits.

Rock the World Drum Set ($35, Ohio Art) lets kids become rock stars with their very own drum set. Includes a snare drum, bass drum, bongo, cow bell sound, sound block, two cymbals, two drumsticks and foot pedal.

Creative Games: Textured Dominos ($23, Great American Trading Co.) and Textured Soft Shapes ($10, Innovative KIDS) have ripples, bumps, and ridges to fascinate vision-impaired children as they use their little fingers to discover ways to fit the pieces back into their pages. Messy Monsters, Jungle Joggers and Bubble Baths ($17, Harris Communications) is a workbook filled with poems, stories, and drawings that make speaking and lip-reading fun, and encourage the maximum use of residual hearing.

Braille Dice and braille Cards (each $2, The Lighthouse Catalog).

Infants: Star Beads ($13, Fisher Price) is a ball that shakes to play three classical tunes, two children's songs, and "sparkling" sounds.

Vehicles: Apart from its diminutive size, Tonka Light & Sound Midsize Ambulance ($13, Funrise Toy Corp.) looks just like the real thing and encourages visual and auditory tracking of light and sound. Alos, Tonka's Remote Control Big Rig and Digging Tractor ($60, Funrise).

Scented Soaps, $4  

Hobbies: Talking Chef Magic Kitchen ($90, Fisher Price). This kitchen has all the sounds of the all-grown-up real thing, plus a few more. It comes with a talking cookbook, interactive phone center, light, burners and realistic cooking "sounds." For a stocking stuffer, add the 25 accessories in the Musical Tea Set ($13, Fisher Price), which plays I'm a Little Teapot and makes magic pouring sounds.

Educational: Little Linguist ($70, Neurosmith) helps kids learn words, greetings, and phrases in English and other languages with the help of 15 interchangeable cartridges. English and Spanish cartridges are included. French and Japanese vocabulary cartridges and Spanish and English Song cartridges are available separately. This gizmo helps to strengthen language development with auditory stimulation.

Dolls: Squeak E. Mouse Gets Dressed ($30, International Playthings Inc.) is a plush toy that kids can get ready for school by pulling on his pants, buttoning his shirt, zippering his jacket, pulling up his hood, buckling and tying his shoes, and snapping his backpack. This toy enhances motor development.

Action-Eye Mike ($43, Enabling Devices) has a rotating eye and spews out catch phrases from the Monsters Inc. movie. Sully ($60, Enabling Devices) is the furry and talkative guy from the same flick. Tickle-Me Elmo Surprise ($53, Enabling Devices) shakes and roars with hysterical laughter. Sesame Street toys including Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and Ernie ($35, Enabling Devices) giggle and shake when turned on. Clancy Bear ($15, Harris Communications), which comes with a ribbon around his neck and red heart, signs "I Love You" in American Sign Language.

Gifts: Scented soaps ($4, Harris Communications) come in almond, honey, green tea, and hyacinth. Foam Picture Frame ($14, Harris Communications) forms the word "Friends" in ASL, with space for two, two-inch pictures. From the same company, tell someone you love them with a gold or silver "I Love You" hands pendant ($16) or a Star of David "I Love You" pendant ($12.)

Also, for information and online shopping, check out these Web sites:

Harris Communications (

Dragonfly Toys (


National Braille Press

Enabling Devices (

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone.

Robitaille writes Assistive Technology, only for BW Online.

Got a comment or question? Please visit our Assistive Technology interactive forum

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