On March 22, 2018, Charles P. Lazarus, founder of Toys “R” Us, passed away at the age of 94. His death occurred one week after the famous toy store chain announced it would be liquidating its stores in the United States.
Toys “R” Us originated out of Lazarus’s children’s furniture store which he started in 1948. He had the foresight to predict the baby boom after World War II. He officially changed the name to Toys “R” Us in 1958, and over a few decades grew to dominate its niche of toy retailing.
Charles P. Lazarus might have put as many smiles on young kids faces as Santa Claus. I know when I was growing up, just the thought of going into one of his stores was the highlight of the year. CNN recently asked readers to share their memories and received over 600 responses.
In light of Mr. Lazarus’s passing coinciding with Toys “R” Us liquidating, it’s far too easy to focus on the negative. When in fact there are likely thousands of great stories that could be told about a man and a business that put so many smiles on children’s faces.
I’d like to focus on one such story as a way to honor Mr. Lazarus and his family. I’ve intertwined numerous excerpts from this case study to tell the story below:
By the early 1990’s, Charles Lazarus was receiving stacks of letters like the one below:
“A child with disabilities, no matter how you look at it, the focus ends up being on what they can’t do. She watches TV, she sees the toys the other kids play with. She wants to do what other kids do.” - Mother of a 9-year old daughter with cerebral palsy
Few things are as heart wrenching as envisioning a disabled child seeing a toy advertisement or watching other kids play with a toy that they could never play with. But even into the early 1990’s this was the hard reality of the toy industry.
Most parents of children with disabilities bought their children clothes as gifts. However disappointing to them and the child, it was just easier then disappointing them with a toy they couldn’t play with.
Moved by letters from families of children with disabilities, Toys “R” Us CEO Charles Lazarus asked his Product Development staff to look into what could be done. Tom DeLuca, who already had 10 years of experience at Toys “R” Us as both in Product Development and as a buyer, recalls how the program got started in 1991:
“We realized that this was a sensitive issue, and we knew we didn’t have any internal experts on disabilities. We wanted to respond in the right way, without embarrassing ourselves or our customers.”
DeLuca had a professional interest in child safety and a personal resonance with children with disabilities. His wife is also a school teacher and Director of Special Services for her school district.
DeLuca spent several months contacting various organizations for expert help. Diana Nielander of the National Lekotek Center, a non-profit center that promotes play for children with disabilities, was among the first.
The National Lekotek Center had already established a reputation for evaluating toys for children with disabilities at its Evanston, IL facilities. The Center also assists toy designers and manufacturers and maintains a toy lending library, emphasizing mainstream toys that help to include kids with disabilities in play with family and peers not “special” toys.
“We thought at first about whether to begin carrying assistive technologies in our stores, or creating a “special” section for toys for kids with disabilities. But we knew we didn’t want to do that. Parents want their child to be treated like every other child.” - Tom DeLuca
After a few months of testing, it came as no surprise to DeLuca that many of Toys “R” Us’ popular products could be used by kids with disabilities. He proposed to Toys “R” Us management that the Lekotek Center help them develop a guide for parents to select toys appropriate to their own children:
"There was absolutely no resistance to the idea. It wasn't a business decision, but an emotional one. It was considered a community service." - Tom DeLuca
The "Toy Guide for Differently Abled Kids"
In 1993, the National Lekotek Center partnered with Toys “R” Us to publish the first “Toy Guide for Differently Abled Kid.” Distribution was handled by the National Parent Network on Disabilities.
Lekotek drafted the copy that described the features of each toy, based on the assessment of “trained play experts” who observed children with disabilities playing with the toys and noted the skill levels required in nine areas:
- Gross Motor
- Fine Motor
- Social Skills
Lekotek Center’s Diana Nielander notes that some toy companies are resistant to incurring the additional cost in design and production that might come from including consideration for children with disabilities, thinking that the market is too small. Since the first Guide was published in 1993, numerous news articles have featured the Toys “R” Us Toy Guide for Differently Abled Kids, citing the considerable size and growth of the market for toys for children with disabilities:
“The market for toys for handicapped children is as much as $2 billion a year, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America, and could grow faster than the $20.7 billion toy market as a whole.” -New York Times, 12/25/97
The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that at least six million children have some form of disability, ranging from learning disorders to severe mental and physical handicaps. The number has increased by about 20 percent in the last decade as survival rates have risen for premature babies and for infants with ailments that were once usually fatal.
In addition, Lekotek Center and Toys “R” Us worked with both Mattel and Fisher Price in the development and launch of products for children with disabilities.
Through compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Toys “R” Us stores are accessible to people with disabilities. In 2003, 22 suppliers of adapted toys for kids with disabilities are available through the internet.
Now Toys “R” Us’ Vice President of Imports, Product Development, and Safety Assurance, Tom DeLuca puts these numbers into perspective:
“We can’t measure the benefits of this program, and we don’t try - we know it is helping our customers. We’ve gotten thousands and thousands of letters [from parents of kids with disabilities] about this program. They tell their relatives and friends about Toys “R” Us.”
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