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See the sweet way this mom modifies elf dolls for kids with disabilities

The dolls are altered to include cleft palates, hearing aids and hospital tubes.
/ Source: TODAY

This holiday season, lots of kids all over the world are going to ask their parents (and Santa) for a doll. Ideally, a doll that looks a little bit like they do.

But that's a real challenge for parents when their children are differently abled, or experiencing an ongoing illness that changes their appearance.

Enter UK-based Clare Tawell, 39, a medical radiation technologist whose hobby is modifying dolls (including a familiar-looking, red-hatted elf) with bonus bits that tell those children's' stories. The dolls (and elves) come with insulin pumps, limb differences, hearing aids and cleft palates — to name just a few of the changes. Her operation is called Bright Ears UK.

Now, you may look at those elves and think "they're Elf on the Shelf!" — except, they're not. As Tawell told TODAY, she uses the British-based elf called "Elves Behavin' Badly," a PMS International company that she says is "very much behind what I do."

"We still live in a world that puts great emphasis on 'being normal,' so if you have a physical/visible difference you are often made to feel abnormal," she told TODAY Parents via email. "To a child, this can really affect their self-confidence and esteem. When they go into a toy shop and see dolls with all 'normal' features it only strengthens the feeling of not belonging, or feeling like the odd one out. I want to change that."

Clare Tawell's elf dolls aim to make kids feel seen.
Clare Tawell's elf dolls aim to make kids feel seen.

One doll at a time, she is. And over the years, it's not just individuals who've purchased her dolls. Nurseries and schools use them, she says, to help "bring up the subject of inclusiveness amongst their children; this is great because hopefully these children will grow into adults who do not judge a person by how they look."

The motivation for creating these dolls is personal: One of Tawell's daughters, Matilda, 4, is deaf and wears hearing aids. (Her other daughter, Evelyn, is 8.) "I became really disheartened when I couldn't find a doll or any toy with hearing aids," she says. "It felt to me that society didn't deem her important and therefore she shouldn't be 'acknowledged.'"

After presenting Matilda with the doll, Tawell said she "could tell (the girl) 'got' what the doll was about because she kept touching the doll's hearing aids and then her own hearing aids."

Clare Tawell with Evelyn (l.) and Matilda.
Clare Tawell with Evelyn (l.) and Matilda.Courtesy Clare Tawell

Soon, other mothers Tawell had met at the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS) were requesting similar dolls, and "it kind of snowballed from there…. It is incredibly empowering for them. So, my range of dolls quickly expanded, and I'm still expanding them now to include as many medical conditions as possible."

That said, she's addressed the issue of ethnic differentiation in the dolls (most are white, with a few Black dolls) with her customers on her Facebook page, writing, "Unfortunately there is a great lack of dolls made by manufacturers of other ethnicities. When I adapt dolls, I need to be able to take them apart so that I can safely attach devices and a lot of the available dolls do not allow me to do this. It is very much an ongoing process to increase the diversity of dolls offered at BrightEars."

Tawell started her business with inspiration from her daughter, who wears hearing aids.
Tawell started her business with inspiration from her daughter, who wears hearing aids. Brightears

"I would love for children in the future to be able to go into a shop and see dolls with hearing aids and cleft lips net to the regular dolls, because then it makes it normal, not different," said Tawell. "When people see these dolls, it can open up a dialogue and increase awareness and understanding of these differences."

It's just a little bit of magic, after all.

This story was originally written in 2020 and has been updated.