From the CEO: Disability Representation

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Image with green background. Text says "some disabilities look like this." Below that text are icons of varying disabilities. Below that text says "some look like this." Under that text is a standard person icon.

I think it was on NPR when I first heard the story about the new Barbie doll with Down syndrome. Thanks to my impulsive buying and Amazon, I soon had the now elusive doll in my hands. At the office we all acknowledged that the toy maker, Mattel, had done right to transform this iconic “female image” into one with a rounder face, almond shaped eyes, the simian palm crease, orthotics, and even a necklace representing an extra 21st chromosome.

It was in 2016, after being called out for perpetuating an unrealistic image of beauty with distorted body proportions, that Mattel released different sized Barbies. What soon followed was an entire line representing dolls with disabilities. We now have Barbie in a wheelchair, with a hearing aid, and Ken dolls with a prosthetic leg and another with vitiligo. It wasn’t long until other Amazon packages arrived at our offices.

Mattel has worked admirably with the National Down Syndrome Society to capture a fairly true image of Down syndrome. Children with DS, or those in wheelchairs, are the more common images seen in those companies who include disabled models in advertising (Target and Kohl’s to name just two). Yet, we all know that some disabilities are not always visible ones.

I was able to find some toys that attempted to capture a few less visible disabilities. I found Hasbro’s Incredible Blind Superhero. Lottie and Friends are dolls representing disabilities including autism (with headphones and support dog). American Girl sells accessories for dolls such as an insulin pump and an asthma care kit. My favorite book right now is The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story that cautions not to confuse different with defect.

This is a wonderful trend for our children. Every child should be able to see themselves in their toys and stories. Whether it is in a book, as an animated character on TV, a puppet, or in this ubiquitous doll, a child knows they are “seen” by the world when there are visible characters like them. Many lessons come from toys. Barbie can be a firefighter or construction worker and Ken can be a teacher or a nurse. Just as those dolls help a child learn that careers are not limited to one gender, the toys representing disabilities teach all children about unlimited power and potential.