The Empathy Toy onstage at TEDx


Toys as Tools for Communication

Back in 2011, before Twenty One Toys existed, our founder Ilana Ben-Ari braved the stage at TEDxConcordia in Montreal to share the tale of the Empathy Toy – then known as the Connexions Toy for Empathy & Creative Dialogue. In this presentation titled “Toys as Tools for Communication,” Ilana details the origin of the toy for empathy, now used around the world in over 45 countries.

During the final year of her Industrial Design degree at Carlton University in Ottawa, students were tasked with solving an often belabored problem — designing a navigational aid for the blind, in partnership with the CNIB. But when Ilana was introduced to a young visually impaired girl named Emily, she realized that there was another, less obvious problem to be solved beyond assisting with Orientation & Mobility Training.

Bridging the social gap at school

In a typical day at public school, visually impaired students like Emily are accompanied by an in-class Educational Assistant. That constant adult presence coupled with the fact about 35% of class time comprises classes like English and Math that are inaccessible for visually impaired students to take together with the rest of their class, makes it increasingly difficult for students like Emily to socialize with their sighted classmates. The real untackled issue at hand, the problem that Ilana was impelled to address, was that social gap between Emily and the other children in her class. How does one even begin to bridge the social gap between visually impaired students and their sighted classmates?

A crucial part of Emily’s education is developing skills related to orientation and mobility – in essence, learning to determine and communicate “Where am I?”, “Where am I going?” and “How do I get there?”. Ilana’s idea was to design a game incorporating those navigational cues – a game that could be played with sighted and visually impaired children alike. A game that encouraged players to consider a different perspective… to see the world the way that Emily saw it.

It was then that Ilana realized that “communication and understanding really were at the heart of creating a real connection between the visually impaired and those around them.” It’s a lesson we continue to learn over the years at Twenty One Toys – how often empathy is at the heart of all we do.

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