I turned the television volume up and paid attention. “So, these toys would be appropriate for blind children?”
I did hear correctly. Astonished, I sat down and watched.
It was December, 1989.
Between Sesame Street and Nickelodeon, and diapers and bottles, I always tried to get my Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee fix each morning. I was fortunate this day, 3-yr-old Katie was engrossed in her Barbies.
Christmas was fast approaching and this segment focused on fun new toys for kids. “Toys for blind children,” I thought to myself excitedly. I couldn’t believe it!
In those days, There were no special guides for toy buying for children with special needs. I was on my own. MaryEllen used her hands but needed assistance. Kevin wasn’t able to hold anything. Both children were blind. They couldn’t sit up or stand, even at one and two years old. Buying toys for them was not easy. I remember shopping late at night when the toy stores were not as crowded and going aisle by aisle studying and feeling everything that could help my kids enjoy a toy. I never thought about this with Katie. As long as it was a Barbie and she had shoes and clothes, Katie was happy. We had an over abundance of stuffed animals for MaryEllen and Kevin. That was the easy way out. That and clothes. I could fill a large room with all the plush and cute outfits they had. I wanted toys and fun for them, too!
While shopping at toy stores, slowly examining and feeling every toy took hours. I had to find a toy that made noise and was easy to activate. There were no Ipads, no special switches, and no toy experts to ask. Maybe a mini electronic piano keyboard would work. I felt the keys and decided that the pressure needed to make a sound was minimal. I could put that by their feet and when they kicked, maybe it would become purposeful and they could make music. That could be fun. I painstakingly went aisle by aisle and toy by toy testing and feeling and pushing. Sadly, every toy that fit well into their needs was made for a newborn. There were a million toys that had jingly sounds that were light and airy and stuffed into a soft shell. The colors were pale. They had pink bunnies that chimed, monkeys that crinkled, and ducks that played lullabyes. How many little, music playing pastel baby toys could I buy? I always left the store sad for me and sad for my children.
These days, toy shopping for children with special needs is different. I can easily look on Amazon or search for something with Google. I can log on to Facebook and ask in my many special needs groups for toy recommendations. I can search for Ipad apps for blind children. There are so many places to look online. It seems so easy!
In 1989, buying toys for children with special needs was difficult and exhausting. It wasn’t exciting and fun like it should be. I never thought, “This is going to be great fun for MaryEllen and Kevin!” Instead, I hoped that what I bought would bring a smile. Anxiety ridden toy purchasing is such an irony!
Fed up with my toy buying failures, I decided to reach out with a handwritten letter. Every morning, after feeding, bathing and loving my littles, I enjoyed my tea with Kathie Lee. For one hour each weekday, (if I was lucky!), I watched and enjoyed how she and Regis bantered back and forth. She always seemed so pleasant and fun.
I couldn’t communicate by email or Twitter or Facebook, or even the internet. They didn’t exist yet! I hand wrote that I enjoyed my mornings so much when I watched the show and I asked if she would be able to do a segment about toys for blind children. Maybe they could have a toy expert on the show that could help me and many other discouraged moms.
It wasn’t long before I received a reply. Kathie Lee sent an autographed picture and note. I was thrilled! I hoped that it was really from her and not an assistant. I didn’t know how famous people handled their mail. In the note, Kathie Lee thanked me for my suggestions and said she hoped to do it soon.
It was only weeks later that the segment aired. I had totally reached the real Kathie Lee! It didn’t even matter what toys were discussed. Together, we opened the avenue for the discussion!
It was just recently, as I heard the sad news of her husband, Frank’s passing, that I recalled this story. To me, Kathie Lee always exuded sincerity and I was always so grateful for her sunny disposition during those early days as a special needs mom. I needed that!
Thanks, Kathie Lee, and between you and me, I think it was us who got the ball rolling on the differently-abled toy catalogs and guides that are so popular now!