New Shades in the Rainbow: Let’s Let Disability Play!

Hello, readers,

I have often commented on this blog about the fact that the wheelchair seems to be the all-purpose symbol for disability. It’s the symbol you see on a “handicapped parking” sign (and it’s funny–who came up with that one? Parking is inanimate–it cannot by definition be handicapped). It’s the image I see most often when I look up “disability” on ClipArt (the salvation of a woman who has never drawn one decent stick figure). It’s the accessory most common when a toy company wants to show a doll has a disability (i.e., Wheelchair Becky of the Barbie line). But as we all know, disability is a lot more diverse than that.

I was inspired to write this post when I saw a picture of an American Girl doll on their website, wearing a hearing aid. I thought, “Finally! A disability-related accessory that does not involve a wheelchair!” And I have seen other such accessories. My university’s Curriculum Materials Center (the place education degree-seekers can find lesson plan materials, kids’ books, textbooks, games, dolls, and puppets), carries dolls that can be outfitted with canes to signify blindness, leg braces, and the like. I thought, “When I was a kid, I would have liked to have a doll who wore leg braces, because I wore them.”

But then I thought…is that true? I challenge the idea that it is, even and especially in my own head, for a couple of reasons.

One, yes, disability-related accessories have been improving, and the scope of them widening. But we still don’t have as many as we could. For example, in an article entitled, “Can’t American Girl Dolls Have Disabilities, Too?” a mother is quoted as talking about a trip to her local American Girl store with her daughter, whose disability prevents her from moving and speaking. Apparently, this girl uses technology like a head stick to communicate–but no doll, to my knowledge, has ever come in its box equipped with a head stick. Nor is it terribly common, even in this modern age, to see a doll with braces (leg or arm), a hearing aid, a communication board (in lieu of the assumption that she speaks with her mouth), or a doll with trademark Down’s Syndrome features. And never, EVER, would you see a doll with, say, accessories that denote autism of any kind, Fragile X syndrome, or a medical device like an IV or colostomy bag. It goes back to society’s unfortunate construct that says, “Dolls are supposed to be pretty, but disability is ugly.”

But then I thought–wait a minute. How far should accessorizing go? Some disabilities, you can’t see, so it’s tough to accessorize them (i.e., OCD, PTSD, ADD). And if we did accessorize every disability, would it be perceived as insulting to the community of people with disabilities, especially the kids these toys are meant for? That is, we try to take the focus OFF disability by focusing primarily on what people with disabilities are strong in. Are good at. Can do. And as you know, I think we should do that. After all, very few of us would probably want to be constantly defined by what we don’t have or can’t do. So should we try to represent every disability in existence?

But then–you got it–my thought process took another turn. First of all, what would be so wrong with representing as many disabilities as we could? (Yes, I hear the argument–disability is a vast topic, and representing vision-related disabilities alone could result in a whole product line, never mind all the other disabilities). But what if there were an inexpensive, reasonable way to do that–and shouldn’t we try? After all, millions of skin colors are represented in this world, and in the dolls–miniature representations of real people–that our children play and identify with. American Girl has expanded its horizons beyond skin differences in recent years with the introduction of a Jewish doll, a black doll who is historical, but does not have roots in slavery, and dolls with diverse family structures (Julie Albright, the 1974 American Girl, comes from a family where the parents have divorced). Although she hasn’t appeared in stores because she is a “rejected” idea right now, you can see images of an Amish Barbie on Google. (Yes, I know the Amish people themselves probably wouldn’t buy her because of the tenet of their faith that generally says dolls with faces encourage vanity. But the point here is diversity). We’re now seeing bald dolls to signify cancer treatment (although, as I have said, without accessories). So why not disability, too?

And really, as long as we say, “Let’s not focus on it,” aren’t we reinforcing the “medical model” that says there’s something “wrong” with having a disability? Sure, we shouldn’t focus on it 24-7. That’s where we get in trouble as far as our images of people with disabilities is concerned. For example, I might have liked that doll with braces–but I might just as often have left them off her legs. After all, not like she couldn’t walk without them, right? Even if the position of her feet were “wrong” otherwise? (Which reminds me–why aren’t we crafting dolls with, say, feet that turn in? Eyes that signify cataracts/blind irises? Treacher-Collins syndrome, for CRYING OUT LOUD).

So, in a nutshell, that was my thought process on the “disability accessory, disability diversity” question. But I hope it’s making you guys think. Once again, dolls and toys are representations of real things and people. They are often the first things our children will play with, the first thing about which they’ll say, “This is what I have fun with.” But if we don’t include disability in their world of play, won’t they learn that disability is “wrong,” and that there is nothing good, or admirable, about real people who have disabilities?

What’s WRONG with disability, anyway?

I say it’s time to let disability play!



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