This week’s Meet a Mom is Lisa Radcliffe, founder of PunkinFutz, a unique brand of toys, accessories and other products that are accessible to all children. All of the products are fun, encourage creative play and made in the United States by people with different special needs—just like Lisa’s two children. Recently, the Brooklyn, NY-based company was highlighted by People magazine. Here’s a bit more about Lisa and PunkinFutz.
When did you start PunkinFutz, and why did you decide to launch this business?
When my son, Buster, was fitted for orthotics (AFOs) ten years ago. I could not understand why they had to be so scary looking. Buster was afraid of the orthotics and other kids were afraid of him because of the orthotics. The AFOs could have easily been made to look like super hero gear—something every kid would want. When I mentioned this to the orthopedist, he responded, ‘You’re right. Someone should do that.’ So, I started out to make colorful designs for AFOs that a child could choose to wear. As I started doing market research, I realized that the need for creative, individualizable products in this area was huge.
What was your background before this?
For over two decades, I worked in technology. I like to find new ways to solve existing problems. I think PunkinFutz is an outgrowth of that, but more personal for me.
Would you please share a bit about your children’s own special needs and what it was like navigating them twice?
Wow, that is such a huge question. I have two children with adaptive needs: a daughter, 24, and a son, 11. My daughter,Maddie, has a constellation of issues, but no exact diagnosis. She has Ataxia, Crohn’s Disease, Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Seizures, ASD, ADHD, a Speech/Language Delay and Developmental/Learning Differences. She is gluten-intolerant. Much of it is auto-immune, but no one understands how the entire picture fits together. She also just graduated from Pace University in May. She’s fierce!
When Maddie was young, there was no social media. The internet was in its infancy, so you couldn’t research things on-line easily. There was no Google. There were no support groups, unless you found one at a local hospital or pediatric clinic. I was single mom with no family within 1000 miles, so it was impossible to attend an in-person support group. Grocery stores didn’t carry gluten-free foods; I had to buy her food from mail-order places and have it overnighted with dry ice. It was outrageously expensive.
I felt isolated a lot. I struggled with anxiety.
Things have been different with my son. First, I am incredibly lucky to have found a supportive husband and co-parent. Also, when our son was born very prematurely, at 26 weeks, friends and family could email. They ordered us food on-line. For better or worse, I could google medical issues, like the meaning of ROP (Retinopathy of Prematurity) and learn what the various stages were. I was able to reach out for and find support online and through social media. A colleague I have never met emailed me videos of her 26-weeker nephews all grown up and playing hockey. It gave me such hope!
It’s still anxiety-provoking to have a child with special needs, but the growth of digital communities has really changed the landscape. You don’t have to do it alone. Through PunkinFutz, I have become increasingly connected to other parents, who can understand my struggles better than my long-time friends and family, sometimes. We keep in touch through social media and even good, old-fashioned (;-) ListServs.
I also rely on the Internet to research treatment options and drug trials and accessible events. Again, the explosion of digital channels and tools has really changed this whole experience in ways that are incredible and so integral to our lives.
Such an amazing story. Why is choice-making, self-expression and creativity at the core of the brand?
There are several reasons this is important. A significant amount of research has shown that creative, child-led play is central to the development of all children, both intellectually and emotionally. The extensive work of noted researcher of Dr. Maite Landazabal further found that children with the greatest intellectual deficits experience greater cognitive gains than typically developing children through creative play. Yet the opportunities and outlets for creative, child-led play are seriously lacking for children with adaptive needs due to issues of opportunity and accessibility.
At PunkinFutz, we set out to make products that are useful for all children. Every child can benefit from strengthening their finger articulation or from motor planning or from the organizing calm of a compression vest (think homework!). We use universal design to maximize the opportunities for playful, personalized usage for children with adaptive play needs: our deep compression vest is fully breathable (doesn’t get hot), has a unique 5-way fit, and can be a super hero paintball game (with PunkinPitch and a Monkto Cape).
It’s so inspiring these products are made by adults with disabilities. How did you achieve this?
Thank you! That’s a core part of our mission. As my daughter reached working age, I suddenly realized that for her to have a job, employers would have to believe in the value of adaptive employment. It seemed impossible for PunkinFutz to be anything but a fully adaptive employer. How could I expect someone else would make that choice, if I didn’t make it for my own company?
Producing in the United States with a fully adaptive workforce has been the hardest part of what we do, but also the most rewarding. It would be cheaper and easier to outsource the production part overseas, but what sort of future does that build for our children? All of our workforce is adaptive. With some extra planning and mindfulness, every job in our organization, from design to production to shipping, can be successfully held by an adult with adaptive needs. We have the most diligent and reliable workforce imaginable. Our quality is better than anything else on the market, too, because our employees care about their work. We are currently working to open an adaptive factory in NYC in order to increase opportunities for adults with disabilities in NYC. How we produce is every bit as important to me as what we produce.
Fantastic! What is your most popular product?
Our “paintball game” has been our most popular. Using our compression vests and our PunkinPitch balls, two or more can play a non-messy, non-harmful version on paintball. It’s an activity in which the entire family can participate. Siblings of very differing abilities (and ages) can successfully and enjoyably play together. Parents, teachers and therapists can use it to interact with children. It enables a child to practice multiple skills (hand-eye coordination, fine and gross motor skills, motor planning, crossing the midline, social/emotional skills, etc.) all while just playing a game!
We learned how much fun it was quite by accident. We were making fidgets and started throwing them at each other, while testing them with our PunkinHugs (yes, that’s what a day in the office looks like at a toy company!). The ones with hook stuck to the vest in a very satisfying way. It was addictive. We didn’t tell anyone how we liked to play with the vest, but one day, an employee came in with a video of her nephews (4 and 5) in our PunkinHugs, throwing blocks with Velcro strips at each other to try to make them stick. Word was out, throwing things at the vest was fun.
So, we worked for 6 months to come up with a product that had enough heft to throw, but not enough to hurt. We created a ball that would stick no matter where or how it landed. The result was our award-winning PunkinPitch. Now, we can take video of staff throwing things at each other without worrying about the bad example we are setting!
Ha! Any other special memories on this journey you’d like to share?
Oh, there are many! The amazing giggles of a beautiful little girl with CP as she opened her hand and dropped a PunkinPitch ball on to our friend Sarah, who was lying on the floor waiting for that moment…a call I received from the sister of one of our employees thanking us for the positive change that rewarding employment had brought to her sister…the picture from a parent of a PunkinHug hanging in her son’s room—the first item of clothing he had ever valued enough to hang up by himself…and watching all our employees spontaneously start to learn sign language in order to communicate with a deaf employee. I could go on. This is truly the most rewarding job I have ever had.
And running your own business is exactly like being a mom: it’s 24/7 with no holidays or weekends off!
Are all of your products relevant to kids without special needs, too? So families with children with and without different needs can play together?
Yes! We make our products accessible so that all children may enjoy them! Who doesn’t want to play paintball or solve the marble maze? Any child benefits from both the therapeutic and play aspects of our products, from the fine-motor coordination of re-rolling PunkinPitch Balls to the imaginative play opportunities with the PunkinHug.
What newer product are you excited about?
We’ve just launched a new line of wheelchair bags for adults called Every Wheel Carry. Over the past 4 years, we found that at least half of our PunkinPie users were adults, so we decided to design and launch an adult line, just for them. In keeping with our ideas about personalized style, every bag can be individualized through use of patches.
What misconception about kids with special needs do you still see out there?
I have really changed my understanding of disability through my work with PunkinFutz. For example, we have a deaf employee. When he came to us, no one was sure what his skill sets were, because no one at his employment agency knew ASL (American Sign Language). I had some rudimentary signing skills, because our son was deaf during the early years of his life. It quickly became apparent that this young man was very capable—he can pick up any skill quickly—but no one knew, because they could not communicate with him. As I struggle to keep up with both his signing and his wit, I truly understand myself to be the one with the disability. I cannot speak his language well enough to access his full potential as his employer. I practice my ASL daily! I used to see different as disabled. People are disabled in so far as the typical world creates barriers for access and interaction, from stairs to spoken language. Think of how different our world would be, if 80% of us were deaf or even 40%. All our notifications would be given in multiple formats, so that everyone could understand. This is just one small example, but PunkinFutz’s employees have truly changed my understanding of disability.
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This post is sponsored by PunkinFutz.