The Power of Positive Playthings–Dolls with Disabilities

Lynne Murray says:

This post started with an item about a Barbie doll in a wheelchair posted by a blog devoted to empowering those in wheelchairs.

In 1997, Mattel produced a wheelchair-using Barbie doll called “Share a Smile Becky.” The doll was a unique way to intertwine Barbie dolls and people with disabilities, making sure no one was left out in the Barbie world. Unfortunately, the doll was eventually discontinued due to ongoing design problems.



The original Becky could not fit through the Barbie Dream House front door, and her hair was also so long that it would get caught in the wheelchairs wheels. Attempting to make the doll as real-life as possible, Mattel did some adjustments to Becky making her wheelchair smaller and her hair shorter. The new and improved Barbie was wanted in high demand and flew off the shelves in less than two weeks.

Despite the reworked Becky Barbie doll, 17-year-old Kjersti Johnson discovered that Becky could not fit into the Dream House’s elevator. Johnson, a high school student with cerebral palsy, complained about the issue stating, “This is what we live with every day… how ironic and true…housing for people with disabilities that is not accessible!”

When I started to research other kinds of dolls with disabilities, I was surprised to find that some parents didn’t like the idea of disabled dolls, even though others devoted their life to creating them.

One mother inspired the creation of a line of dolls resembling her daughter who has Down syndrome:

Hannah, a 13-year-old who lives with her family in Robinson, has Down syndrome. The genetic condition causes developmental delays and often results in certain defining physical features, such as a flattened facial profile, smaller, low-set ears and upward slanting eyes.

Her mother, Connie, described the day when Hannah, flipping through a doll magazine, spotted a toy with long brown hair and light brown eyes. It looked like her younger sister Theresa, now 10, Hannah said. But, as she continued flipping through the magazine, she said:”There’s no doll that looks like me.”

Four years later, they’ve done that, in a bigger way than they’d imagined. Mrs. Feda, who set out to make one doll, instead has founded a business. She worked with a doll sculptor in Michigan and a manufacturer in China to design 16 male and female versions of dolls with Down syndrome’s physical characteristics, in a variety of eye and hair and skin colors.

The dolls — available now — are already in high demand. The dolls will be made of vinyl, and will have the option of coming with plastic clothes, both characteristics that will facilitate their use in a sterile hospital setting. The clothing will also have large buttons and be easy to put on and take off the doll, since children with Down syndrome tend to have weak muscle tone.

Requests for the dolls have come from around the world, Mrs. Feda said. And not just from parents of children with Down syndrome. The first order came from a first grader in Kansas who had a friend with Down syndrome. She wanted her dolls to have a similar friend, Mrs. Feda said.

“When I got this email, I bawled my eyes out,” she said, describing it as a sign they were on the right track.

Other parents, speaking of a different line of disability dolls, had a strongly negative reaction, partly due to the “attractiveness” factor.

There have been so many offensive comments posted on Helga Parks’ website, she has been forced to post a disclaimer on it. Helga sells around 2,000 dolls a year at £25 each as far afield as the UK, Australia and Saudi Arabia.

Emma Moorcroft, from Abbots Langley, Herts, thought the same thing when she first saw the dolls.

The 31-year-old’s daughter Sian, five, suffers from a rare condition called intermediate (Type II) spinal muscular atrophy, and will never walk because she does not have enough muscle. As well as being concerned that the toys emphasise her daughter’s difference from other children, she was also concerned with their appearance.

Emma says: ‘Sian loves her toys, so when I first heard about a disability doll I thought it was a great idea.

‘I imagined they would be trendy little dolls, like her Barbies, only perhaps with a fantastic snazzy pink wheelchair.

‘But when I actually saw them I was shocked by how terrifying they look. In fact, they are so offensive they are the last thing I would actually give her to play with. They look so abnormal — not at all appealing, pretty or trendy.

Sara Kelsoe, 23, has similar concerns. ‘These dolls look disturbing and somewhat sinister,’ says Sara, from Northwich, Cheshire. ‘But it would be fantastic if Action Man could take his legs off at night when he went to bed and put them on the next morning ready to conquer the world.

So are these ‘disabled dolls’ a force for good, or well-intentioned folly? The question bitterly divides thousands of parents of disabled children — and as dolls like these become more widely available, the controversy will only grow.

The dolls the parents didn’t like, such as these with various disabilities on the Pattycake Doll site, are less in the glamour doll mode and more  in the cartoonish Raggedy Ann/Raggedy Andy style. Not that long ago, the Cabbage Patch dolls in that same style were the hottest ticket in the marketplace. When it comes to disaiblities, however, what some people might see as cute and cuddly, many parents found distancing and repellent. Some parents seem to be reacting to dolls that focus on accurately portraying the features of disabilities rather than portraying humanity and attractiveness.

This last piece fell into place for me when I read about Positive Exposure, founded in 1998 by award winning fashion photographer, Rick Guidotti, whose project aims to find beauty in disability. The key for me was this man’s skills in making beautiful pictures translated into healing images of children with disabilities which parents had only seen in mug shot, crime scene, style, medical documentary photos:

Rick worked in NYC, Milan and Paris for a variety of high profile clients including Yves St Laurent, Revlon, L’Oreal, Elle, Harpers Bazaar and GQ. One day, on a break from a photo shoot, … Rick saw a stunning girl at the bus stop – a girl with pale skin and white hair, a girl with albinism. Upon returning home Rick began a process of discovery – about albinism, about people with genetic differences and about himself. What he found was startling and upsetting. The images that he saw were sad and dehumanizing. In medical textbooks children with a difference were seen as a disease, a diagnosis first, not as people.

I was really excited to photograph the first girl, she was stunning. But she walked in with her shoulders hunched, no eye contact, and I knew this kid had been teased her whole life. It had taken out any bit of self esteem she had, she was just so fragile. Just the day before I had shot Cindy Crawford on the same set, so I turned on the music and the fan, and I picked up a mirror and said, “Christina, look at yourself. You’re magnificent!” All of the sudden her hands were on her hips, she started bouncing all over the studio; that transformation empowered her, that’s how she was going to change her community.<

Now Positive Exposure has developed further:

Positive Exposure utilizes photography and video to transform public perceptions of people living with genetic, physical and behavioral differences – from albinism to autism.  Our educational and advocacy programs reach around the globe to promote a more inclusive, compassionate world where differences are celebrated.

Rick Guidotti helped me to understand the complexity of the dolls: presenting images of “people like us” that we can feel better about is not simply a matter of accurately portraying all of our features. If that were the case most people would feel great about showing off passport and driver’s license pictures. The appeal of a portrait or a doll arises from the vision of its creator.

One thought on “The Power of Positive Playthings–Dolls with Disabilities

  1. This was my response to the photo project by Guidotti when his work circulated on a disability site a couple of weeks ago and I still think its the case: The photos are great, but I hate the rhetoric around them. I hate the idea of reframing “beauty” because it seems to me only to try to re-standardize a specific ideal, not break it down so that there is no ideal against which we need to hold ourselves. I also don’t like the comments about how “this photographer is so great and so inspiring” because it assumes that he – as someone without a disability it appears – has done some amazing thing by actually being willing to work with and photograph people with disabilities. The photos are well-composed and well-shot, but anyone who was willing to take good photos of their subjects could do them.

    The sections of this post on the dolls and the various reactions to them by parents of kids with disabilities is fascinating. I personally think the more representations of disability(ies), the better, because not everyone is “attractive” and not everyone wants or has to be “beautiful.”

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