Thursday, November 29, 2012

When smart people make clueless remarks about special needs


American Girl recently debuted Special Sparkle, a line of doll accessories. It includes a hearing aid, a wheelchair and an allergy-free lunch with a medical bracelet and EpiPen, as reported by Dodai Stewart on Jezebel.


A writer I've long admired, Dodai noted that these accessories could help kids with special needs feel included, and even "normalize" disability because they're on the same catalog page as everyday items like boots and a hairbrush. These objects, she said, could also help raise awareness about kids who need hearing aids and wheelchairs. Props, I thought. Even better, make dolls that come with this stuff. Y-e-s! But when she questioned the "ultra-customization," it touched a nerve.

"Does it put too much emphasis on the individual?" she mused. "Is it all connected to this new selfishness, the kind of parenting that insists every child is a special snowflake, worthy of praise for just existing?"

Huh?!! 

That doesn't describe this parent, or the many I know who have kids with special needs. If there's one thing I want for Max, it's for others to see him as NON-special. I'd like kids and adults to quit thinking of him as different. I ache for people to look past his disabilities and see the kid in there.

It's not that doll accessories are going to change how the world perceives kids with special needs (as if), but they couldn't hurt and they might help. And I sure could use any help I can get because many parents don't seem to speak with their kids about how to treat those with special needs.  

He's just a boy, I sometimes feel like shouting. Stop staring at him like he's an alien. Just talk to him. Play with him.

Oh, and to be sure, I do think my kid is a "special snowflake." Countless others think their children are, too. They're called "parents." That's our jobs. If we're not our kids' publicists, who's gonna be—Leslie Sloane? As moms to kids with special needs, it becomes our mission to get others to see how much they rock, the opposite of what Dodai calls "selfishness." Otherwise, our "special snowflakes" would fade away.

So when companies include our kids in some way—and it's rare, despite recent ads featuring children with disabilities—I'm thrilled, as I'm sure many special needs parents are. Let's not over-think what's going on here. Sure, Special Sparkle is part (or all) marketing ploy. But I see no bad...other than the fact that American Girl is charging 38 bucks for a doll wheelchair.

44 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing. I feel the same way as you do.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post. I think sometimes on Jezebel they feel they have to find someone to jab to keep a piece edgy, and they should have left this one a straight up nice piece. (Although $38 is a lot for a toy wheelchair, but then all American Girl stuff is expensive.)

    I really appreciate the writing you do that encourages people to look past a disability and simply "see the kid."

    ReplyDelete
  3. I get what you're saying and think you make some good points. But I laughed at the AG allergy-free lunch. I remember feeding my dolls (not AG, of course) the tiny food boxes that came with the mini shopping cart; how far toy companies have come since then! My kids don't have food allergies, so I am asking in all seriousness: do kids with food allergies, really define themselves in that way, enough to want the accessory so their doll can be just like them? Both my kids have friends with peanut allergies and they (the kid with the allergy or their friends) don't really give it a second thought unless it's lunchtime. Not meaning to offend, I just wondered.
    Erica

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. as the mama of a child who has nut and gluten allergies, as well as her little sister who has a g-tube, HECK YES the food makes a difference. do you have any idea what it's like for her to go to a birthday party and only be able to eat the special snack i brought for her? sometimes i want to say no to invites just to avoid the awkward, my kid can't eat anything at your party conversation.
      while we won't be buying american girl dolls for lots of reasons, i have given one of my daughter's baby's a g-tube, and whenever she pretends to feed her baby dolls she always tells the baby, 'this is gwutwin safe.'

      Delete
    2. I don't mean does the food make a difference, I get that it does. I just wondered if a child who has the challenges that your kids have would feel left out if her AG doll had to eat "regular" food because she (the kid) can't. That was my question.

      Delete
    3. My nephew is sensitive to gluten and is very aware of his gluten free food. I think he would definitely get a kick out of it but would be fine with regular food, too.

      Delete
  4. The writer knows nothing about children, that's for sure. Why were African American families so excited when Disney created an African American princess, or Mattel came out with black Barbie? Kids want to see themselves.

    My niece is who has celiac disease is past the doll stage, but every event in her life that involves food involves what she can and can't eat. When she WAS at the doll stage, she would make her dolls "pretend gluten free cookies." Does it make a difference? You bet it does.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, yes! FYI, Dodai did talk about black dolls in her post, including how they only came in one shade when she and her sister wished for café au lait ones.

      Delete
  5. The thing that annoys me most is that the wheelchair is a hospital-type and looks nothing like the customized wheelchairs, with seats, straps, etc. kids and adults actually use. What they really need to do is make a motorized wheelchair that a kid can drive with a remote; wouldn't that be awesome for a kid with motor difficulties to zoom around?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kate, not only a cool idea from "keeping up with current equipment,", but how much AWESOME fun would an R/C chair be!!!!!! You need to pitch that one to somebody in corporate!!!

      Delete
    2. Awesome idea! Also, would love to see mini AFOs.

      Delete
    3. Me too! I thought about writing AG and promising to buy a set if they made them. :)

      Delete
    4. Cabbage Patch years ago had a doll that came with AFOs and cuffed crutches. I don't know if they still have that, but when my eldest was younger, I happily bought that one!

      Delete
  6. My take on this article was very different than yours. Perhaps I read it wrong, but what I think Dodai Stewart is saying is: Why not make these 'differences' so common that they aren't seen as differences anymore? Let's not make these children feel "special" [ie, as an oddity, something to be pitied] because they need hearing aids or use a wheelchair.

    The very next line from the one you find so offensive reads, "If it's important to teach kids about deafness, why not mass-manufacture a doll that comes with a hearing aid?"

    She also writes this:
    "Whether or not a a little girl is deaf, she gets to see a hearing aid not as some strange, foreign object, but one of many possible accessories a kid can have. Just being exposed to things like wheelchairs and allergy-free lunches can be a teachable moment, making a child who doesn't need those things accept and understand that some people do."

    That doesn't sound "clueless" to me at all.

    Please, let's not go attacking writers who are championing for our kids - especially ones who don't even have an iron in this fire and aren't fighting for the acceptance of their own child!

    -Julia O'C

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, Julia. Sure, I read the entire piece and like I said, I agreed with what she wrote about how these accessories can help our kids. I generally think Dodai's a smart, excellent writer. But I took great offense (obviously!) that she lumped all parents together as people who out of "selfishness" want to crow about their "special snowflakes." That has nothing to do with where special needs parents are coming from.

      Delete
    2. Overall I agree with Julia - I felt the overall tone was positive - but the sentence about selfishness and "special snowflakes" was bizarre to me! It almost sounds like something an editor made her slip in for controversy's sake, because it doesn't fit with the rest of the tone of that paragraph, let alone the article.

      Delete
    3. As an editor, I can honestly say that's a definitely possibility!

      Delete
  7. I like all of the points you make. And while I can see a little how it may seem to some like overkill to point out the things our kiddos need and use, I am with you COMPLETELY for the smaller part of the population who ARE special needs who NEVER seem themselves or their stuff on shelves in the toy department or in catalogs besides the sterile medical-supply catalogs.
    But I have yet another side to share......
    My two daughters are siblings of a special needs child, thus they see things differently. They have been raised with feeding pumps, special PT tools, syringes, walkers, and custom wheelchairs/adaptive strollers. And they have sought things to buy from American Girl that allow them to play those sorts of roles as the caregivers for the sick or those who need extra help. One of my girls bought the set from AG with the crutches and cast and also go the eyeglasses because I think she likes the special kiddos and wants to be a helper to other children, even in her doll play.
    So let's not forget ALL of the kids. No, this year's AG of the year doesn't need to be 1/1000th American Indian, part redneck, love shopping through bull catalogs to choose her calves' sire, have a wart on both knees, and be great at helping with her special needs brother like my middle child, but I DO believe that broadening the scope of accessories and awareness of needs is healthy for kiddos. Plus, let's all remember that AG exists to make money, and if they didn't think these new items would bring in the bucks, they would not have wasted Chinese plastic and catalog space. So there is that end of it all too!!
    Great thoughts, as usual, and hugs to Max. I TRULY want to hang out with Max someday!! I think he and my Garrett would have a blast!!!!
    Love,
    Clara-Leigh

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. WELL SAID, Clara-Leigh! Also: How much fun would it be if a bunch of kids here had a huge playdate? One can dream....

      Delete
  8. Namine plays with dolls like I play my RPGs - we want to see ourselves. So yes, she has a wheelchair for her dolls, not because she wants to be set apart, but because she wants to be included.

    ReplyDelete
  9. My daughter has the wheelchair and we love it. It's much cuter than the build-a-bear chair. It doesn't bother me as much that it isn't a custom seat, strapping,etc. since a simple wheelchair doesn't have any of that. My daughter's does, but that's because she needs lots of supports in her chair which isn't necessarily typical of others in chairs. BUT...the comment about a remote control power wheelchair for the dolls - I LOVE IT! Would buy it in a heartbeat! Yes, that should be pitched to AG and I hope they will add it to their line!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Per usual, Ellen, I love every word you wrote here! Your voice is such a gift to special needs kids and parents. And anyone smart enough to listen to it!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I thought her reasoning was a bit confused. On the one hand, she wants kids to be able to take on diverse identities in their play with dolls of different cultures. But she's concerned about the fact that a kid who uses hearing aids might be able to buy a pair for her American Girl doll -- and this puts too much attention on the individual?

    What about a kid who doesn't use hearing aids buying a pair for her doll and pretending her doll has hearing loss? Isn't that the same as pretending you're from a different culture through your doll? She laments that we've moved away from dolls that represent a certain period in history, and says: Does that mean there's less interest in exploring different cultures?

    News flash -- disability IS a culture, an identity. For the first time millions of little girls are going to be able to use their imaginations in a way that opens up their minds.

    Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  12. After my son outgrew his 1st manual wheelchair, we kept it. Its in the basement out in the open. My daughter & ALL the neighbor hood kids have "tried" it out. They learned it takes some "skillz" to manuever. I never said it was off limits. Have I warped their brains or did they, thru play, see & feel that wheelchairs are not scary- are not strange- & not all that "special". That its just part of life? (My son is non-verbal too. I've never had any of the neighbor parents question me about it.) I'm hoping for the latter.. that being around the wheelchair thru real play will spark compassion.. not pity.
    dawnMichelle in MO

    ReplyDelete
  13. My take from the article was a little different, when she says. "special snowflakes" I don't think she is referring to kids with special needs. I think she is talking about the culture as a whole now catering to every whim of a child. Directing everything to their wants, likes and dislikes, and encouraging selfishness. The point being; do we need to have dolls exactly like us? instead of the way it used to be done, where you buy a doll and learn of their culture, instead of creating a doll and culture the same as your own. Have the option to buy one (type) hearing impaired doll because some people are hearing impaired not because your child is hearing impaired. Making it less about the child and more about the fact that all people are different and that difference is normal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Again, I agree with her overall points about how these dolls can be good for our kids and about making differences common. But the "special snowflakes" point about parents who over-promote their kids has nothing to do with the lives of special needs parents who are the ones who'd be buying this stuff for their kids.

      Delete
    2. But maybe that's her point: that it shouldn't be just the parents of children with special needs that buy this stuff, that if the company created a line of special needs dolls, each with their own story, rather than just selling customization accessories to make the doll like the child, they could educate a much wider audience and "normalize" disabilities more. As to the "special snowflakes" point, there is evidence which shows that (non-special needs) children treated this way end up achieving less - A child who is brought up to feel overly special will not have a realistic sense of itself, and at the same time will be less willing to attempt challenging tasks, as failure would disprove their "specialness".

      Delete
  14. Thanks for posting this - am actually getting Anna her first AG doll with wheelchair for Christmas this year... :)
    I agree with you about the "stupid" comment - thinking the author doesn't have a child with special needs.
    And, yes, of course the wheelchair is $38 - why would overcharging for a piece of DME be in any different in doll world? ; )

    ReplyDelete
  15. I think AG including accessories for special needs kids is awesome. I also agree that little AFOs would be AWESOME. My CP daughter used them as she was learning to walk, and even though she doesn't need a wheelchair or a walker, the AFOs would be neat for her to play with. Also, she has a peanut allergy, so the food kit with the epi-pen is awesome. Lets her doll be like her, rather than being different. Bravo for more acceptance, and bravo to all of us special needs parents for raising our children to be accepted as "just kids" in this life!

    ReplyDelete
  16. The first time I took my daughter to an American Girl store, she wanted to buy a wheelchair for her doll. My daughter is NOT in a wheelchair, but her big brother is. When her friends come over, they love the doll wheelchair. My kids friends love our regular wheelchairs, too. My son has a power chair and a manual chair and whichever one he isn't in, another kid gets in when they're over. I can tell you that I think ANY kid would enjoy a RC power wheelchair! When Rescue Heroes were a popular toy, there was one in a wheelchair. We bought it for my son and he loved that it was a cool hero dude in a wheelchair, like him.
    ~Jill (Jack's mom)

    ReplyDelete
  17. My daughter is American Girl Doll crazy. Her older brother (9) isn't into the dolls but thinks all the accessories are cool. For both of them, their favorite accessory is the wheelchair. They've coveted it through multiple trips to the AG store. No one in our family or daily social circle uses a wheelchair. Props to AG for this accessory and the opportunity for kids to digest, through play, that wheelchairs are a normal (dare I say cool)part of everyday living. The AG wheelchair is arriving from Santa this Christmas.

    NE Mom

    ReplyDelete
  18. My son wears one hearing aid. He has one doll that came with his aid that also wears and aid. He never plays with it. He prefers, bert and ernie and elmo. he is only 2, so he never really questions why he wears his aid (or his "Laura" - he named it after his ST), or why other people do not. Maybe that will come later.
    This summer, for the first time, I was startled when another child at the playground asked her dad "what was in that little boy's ear"? I didn't know how to react. Frankly, if you could not see the aid (if by analogy he could wear ear contact lenses instead of glasses), you would never know my son was "different". thankfully, I was quickly able to put aside my instant inclination to defend my son, and simply answer the question. "He needs that to help him hear, just like your dad needs glasses to help him see. But when he wears that, he hears just as well as you do."

    So, I hope that by offering these products my son won't have to answer the "what is that" question. And, I agree that ALL children, not just special needs, are "special snowflakes" not in the "everyone should get a trophy" or "nothing is every my kid's fault because he is so special" way (that I detest),but that each has a different combination of strengths and weaknesses that makes them who they are and makes them different from everyone else. Different does not equal better, but it does equal special.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I want what you want for Max: To be treated as non-special

    ReplyDelete
  20. ps -- one other thought! When my young son got a g-tube, I had a wonderful friend who sewed into two dolls real g-tubes and sent us the syringes and other supplies, and they were a huge hit when kids came over and we explained about Ben's g-tube. This is no different. When a child with disability pulls out her doll with hearing aids and wheelchair, her friend without disability is going to go "Cool. Maybe I should get my dolls some hearing aids."

    ReplyDelete
  21. Personally as I a person with a hearing loss I wish that they had the doll hearing aid when i was in the doll stage. I ounce put playdough in my doll's ear so she could have a hearing aid. Also I thinks it promotes inclusion and makes kids happy to see that their doll can be like them.

    ReplyDelete
  22. As several parents have said I feel like buying these dolls and corresponding (overpriced ;) accessories would be more geared towards making Syona feel like there were other kids just like her out there...that used the same gear, and had the same special equipment that helped her live her life.

    On a sidenote I'll definitely be purchasing one of these dolls with pink hearing aids for my friend's daughter who has ones that look the exact same. And I'll hope for some black and white animal print AFOs to buy for Syona's future doll (that's not too specific or individualized, right?) ...because, hey, almost any kid I know thinks it's cool when a toy looks like them - special needs or not.

    Great post and perspective Ellen.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Calling disabled kids special snowflakes only serves to further label and separate them from average children. The same is true with the name of the entire product line, Special Sparkle. And, as was said previously, that wheelchair looks like hospital issue. This product line is teaching nothing positive. It seems only to promote sales within a specific market, and a good-deed feeling for the manufacturer.

    ReplyDelete
  24. WTF is wrong with this complainer? The whole American Girl franchise is based on the idea of constructing a "doll that looks like me." You can pick out hair color/eye color/skin color and accessories, you can even have the manufacturers send matching clothes so the kid and doll can dress alike--so what's wrong with a few more accessories in the options list? The things are out of the price range of most people in the working class, but that's a separate issue. If people can afford it, why not let them buy what the market will bear? The complainer needs to get a life and stop worrying so much about what other parents buy for their kids.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I agree w/ you Ellen. They need to focus on inclusion not exclusion. I use a wheelchair. I'm 20. I want the next disney princess in a wheelchair. However I want her to save the prince from an evil vampire unicorn to show that people in wheelchairs are a hero not the damsel in distress. My movie plot would also take away pity. Sorry to get off topic. I do think that in the next cars movie there should be a car/wheelchair. Max would probably like that. I think the doll is an awesome idea. I had a Barbie when I was little in a wheelchair. It was made from flimsy cheap plastic which broke quickly. However, I loved it.
    Thanks,
    Tuesona

    ReplyDelete
  26. Gotta love the $38 wheelchair - at least it's consistent with how overpriced all disability gear us! Now, let's add the custom head rest, shoulder supports, AAC mount, etc and we'll easily get a $100 chair!

    ReplyDelete
  27. "Does it put too much emphasis on the individual?" she mused. "Is it all connected to this new selfishness, the kind of parenting that insists every child is a special snowflake, worthy of praise for just existing?"

    Wha? that doesn't even make sense. Oh and American Girls is ALL about customization. That their MY American Girl line is.

    Grr... and who says these toys are meant just for children with disabilities. As I posted earlier, my 2 year old cousin who is not disabled loved playing with a play wheelchair I bought. Because it's fun, first and foremost. Awareness and education second.

    Come on people, (Dodi) think beyond what you assume and give children more credit that their not as self-centered as you think they are.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for sharing!