Thursday, April 13, 2017

Why Barbie has no friends with disabilities—but needs some

Barbie has a friend named Becky who uses a wheelchair. You won't be able to find Becky, however, at Target, toy stores or anywhere except eBay and some Amazon stores, where she sells for a pretty penny. Mattel discontinued Becky and has yet to introduce another doll with disability.

Barbie has friends of different races and, as of November 2016, a plus-size pal. But Barbie has no BFFs with disabilities. That's not just sad, it's a disservice to children of all abilities.

I read about it this week, when my friend Paula directed me to an article on PRI. The herstory: In 1997, Mattel introduced Share a Smile Becky. It was a dippy name for a cool doll in a wheelchair. Disability advocates were psyched, and Becky sold well. But she had a housing issue: She couldn't fit through the doors of the Barbie Dream House or into the elevator, either.

Becky changed personas in 1998, when Mattel morphed her into a school photographer. She became Paralympic Champion Becky in honor of the 2000 Sydney Paralympics. And then, she disappeared off shelves, relegated to vintage doll status. Some say it was because Mattel didn't want to redesign the Dream House to accommodate her, although I found no confirmation of that.

The lack of a Barbie doll with disabilities does a disservice not just to girls in wheelchairs, who deserve to have playthings that look like them, but to all girls. As blogger Karin Hitselberger noted on Claiming Crip, "Barbie dolls matter because they often reflect the hopes and dreams of the little girls who play with them.... Becky mattered because she showed everyone that a wheelchair was nothing to be afraid of, and it didn't prevent you from having a life just like everybody else."

Some toy companies are coming around to representing disability, something the campaign Toy Like Me has been pushing for. Since 2015, it's been calling on the global toy industry to positively represent 150 million kids with disability and difference worldwide. (Check out their list of toy products that represent diff:ability.)

This year, Lego included a boy in a wheelchair as part of the Lego City Town Fun in the Park building kit. In 2015, MakieLab debuted a series of dolls with disabilities (not currently available online, as the company is currently in transition). American Girl offers a wheelchair, a hearing aid, arm crutches and leg braces. Toys 'R Us has a Wheelchair and Crutch Set for its Journey Girls line. Nickolay Lamm, known for creating a normally-proportioned doll, recently funded a Kickstarter for a fashion doll wheelchair; deliveries are set to start in June. (Brit blogger Jess Powell has a good history of wheelchairs and walking aids for dolls.)

Still, dolls and action figures with disabilities produced by mainstream companies remain a rarity. Why are only single ones being issued here and there, making them seem more like a token than true inclusion? Children are missing out. Research published in The International Journal of Diversity in Education found that interaction with ethnically diverse dolls lead to improved empathy among children, and a means of addressing bias through discussion.

Dolls with disabilities help children see that peers with disabilities are an integral and typical part of life, just like people of all races. Consider the Instagram photo circulating last week of a little white girl holding her black doctor doll, the one a cashier at Target had questioned and the girl had defended. Dolls enable girls and boys to role-play real life, one way of getting comfortable with kids in wheelchairs or hearing aids. These dolls can better enable parents to have discussions with their children, raising them to be more open-minded and accepting.

And of course, dolls with disabilities are vital to the children with disability who play with them. As Karin Hitselberger says, "Becky matters because I am Becky and when I was seven years old seeing a doll that looked like me was the most powerful thing in the world."

You might recall that viral video last year of a girl with a prosthetic leg whose parents got her an American Girl doll customized by a prosthetics company. When 10-year-old Emma saw the doll, she cried happy tears.

Finally, when she could talk, she exclaimed, "It's got a leg like me!"


  1. I LOVE THIS!!! Thanks for bringing this to light. I am going to place my order for the kickstarter wheelchair soon!

  2. Yes! Representation of disability helps both disabled and able bodied kids. I just wrote a paper about the need for characters with disabilities in children's literature.


Thanks for sharing!