A Norwich woman who inspired some of the world’s biggest manufacturers to create dolls with wheelchairs and hearing aids is now giving teddy bears the chance to hear clearly.

Does your teddy bear need a hearing aid? Can bears ski?

These and other questions will be answered at a unique toy clinic in Norwich on July 8 and 9.

Children are invited to take their teddy bears along to the clinic and enjoy stories about a deaf bear – before their teddies get free toy hearing aids fitted in a unique role play installation.

The free Bear Ear Clinic has been created by Rebecca Atkinson, who has inspired some of the world’s biggest toy manufacturers to make disabled dolls.

Rebecca, who was born partially deaf and became partially sighted as an adult, began by giving mainstream toys a makeover.

“I grew up with two hearing aids and never saw deafness positively represented anywhere,” she said.

When she customised dolls with tiny clay hearing aids and posted pictures online, they garnered a lot of attention – and eventually led to Mattel producing Barbie dolls with wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs, and Playmobil and Hot Wheelz making toy figures with disabilities.

She set up a company and campaign, Toy Like Me, which is now focusing on arts and play events and installations, such as the Bear Ear Clinic.

The first ever Bear Ear Clinic will be at The Forum, Norwich. It was inspired by the book Can Bears Ski? by deaf poet Raymond Antrobus, illustrated by Beccles artist Polly Dunbar.

It tells the story of a little bear who, like Antrobus himself as a child, wondered why people kept asking him “Can bears ski?” Of course, that’s not what they were saying and when the bear gets his first hearing aids he realises they were asking: “Can you hear me?”

Polly has also created a comic, Be Deaf Aware for your Bear, for children attending the Bear Ear Clinic to take home once their teddy has had its ears tested and been given hearing aids.

“I wanted to make the points about being deaf aware as funny and accessible as possible for very young readers. It’s all about bears, so the Goldilocks principle sprung to mind pretty quickly,” said Polly. “When talking to your deaf bear you can be too loud, or too quiet or just right.”

The comic features four fun-loving bear children with varying degrees of deafness.

“The reader will see the obstacles they encounter in their daily life and how by being deaf aware you can make all the difference,” adds the illustrator, who began losing her hearing in her 20s and now wears hearing aids. “I wanted to make this the opposite of dreary and for all children to come away feeling ‘just right’.”

She was thrilled to be commissioned to illustrate Can Bears Ski? Her mum, children’s author Joyce Dunbar, is profoundly deaf and had met Raymond Antrobus several years previously. “By some wonderful happenstance his beautiful story landed in my inbox and it all felt meant to be,” said Polly.

One of her best-known books, Penguin, is the story of a penguin who does not talk. “It wasn’t meant to be a book about deafness but it has been read and loved by children who have are deaf or non-verbal, children who maybe don’t communicate in the usual way." More recently Polly has created a series of books with Eoin Mclaughlin, including While We Can’t Hug. “It’s about hedgehog and tortoise showing they love each other without being able to touch. The idea came about during the first lockdown.”

Rebecca and Polly both attended City of Norwich School in Eaton Road, Norwich, and Rebecca said: “I also knew Polly’s mum, who has been a fantastic creative role model and mentor to me.” Polly added: “Rebecca was a couple of years above me at school, in my brother's year. She was incredibly cool and I wanted to be like her! Rebecca was making things happen even back then."

Rebecca went on to work in television and print journalism in London before returning to Norwich and setting up Toy Like Me. She has also created a disability-inclusive animation series for pre-schoolers called Mixmups, celebrating the joy of playing and mixing up ideas and objects to create stories. It is due to launch on Channel 5 next year.

The Bear Ear Clinic is part of Norfolk Deaf Festival. “There will also be a chance to see the Toy Like Me ‘See it Be it’ exhibition which celebrates the weird, wonderful and plain normal jobs held by deaf adults. This interactive hands-on exhibition showcases images of over 150 deaf adults and their jobs, from lawyers and ambulance drivers to dog walkers and teachers," Rebecca said.

The free family events, with sign language, spoken English and captions, include the Bear Ear Clinic plus live illustration with Polly, children’s sign language sessions, arts and crafts, the chance to play with toys with disabilities, and a reading corner featuring books with deaf characters, by deaf authors and illustrators, all aimed at boosting self-esteem for deaf children.

“Visitors can expect lots of role-play fun with bear ears, white coats, toy hearing aids and cochlear implants,” said Rebecca.

The toy hearing aids and cochlear implants are made by a 3D print company in Britain and meet all toy safety requirements. “We have had a lot of people asking online to buy them and hope to be able to make them available to buy in the future, but for now the children of Norwich and Norfolk are the lucky ones!” said Rebecca.

“Whilst our work is all about fun and play, there is a serious reason behind it all,” she added.

Research has shown that playing with a wheelchair-using doll for just a few minutes, made children more likely to want to befriend real disabled children.

“We also see the self-esteem of disabled children improve when they see positive affirmative imagery of disability reflected back at them,” she said. “So there is quite a serious message underneath the fun of the ear clinic!”

Can bears ski? It turns out they can – and wear hearing aids too.