Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Barbie is getting a new set of wheels – one that’s long overdue and a serious game-changer.
Last week, Mattel unveiled two new Barbies as part of its Fashionista line: Barbie in a wheelchair and Barbie with a prosthetic leg. Kim Culmone, Vice President of Barbie Design, told Teen Vogue that one of the most frequent requests Mattel received was for a doll in a wheelchair. In addition to listening to its customers, the company worked with people with disabilities to bring the dolls to life in the most accurate way possible.
Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout society, celebrated the move. “Mattel’s announcement … is such a huge step forward. It is not only empowering for young girls with disabilities, but it will break down stereotypes developed at a young age that will help remove stigmas adversely impacting people with disabilities,” he told me.
This is particularly important because people with disabilities are traditionally either underrepresented or misrepresented – and all too often laden with archaic and insulting stereotypes even though they make up 19% of the US population, according to Census Bureau figures from 2010.
As a woman with a disability, I can’t tell you how much it would have meant to me as a young girl to have a doll in a wheelchair. Growing up, my sister and I could easily spend hours playing with our dolls. We’d pull the big cardboard box out from under the bed, excitedly reaching inside for each Barbie. One by one, we’d line them up and create our very own adventures. During weekend shopping trips, we’d make a beeline straight for the Barbie aisle. It was such a magical sight to see row upon row of shiny pink boxes emblazoned with that trademark logo.
I often wondered, though, as I zoomed up and down the aisles in my wheelchair: where were the dolls that looked like me?
The truth is, I never saw myself represented in my favorite toys. During the height of the Cabbage Patch craze, my mom even had my doctor put casts on my beloved doll, Emma, so we could look alike.
“Kids need to see examples of humans that are different from themselves, but also be able to see toys, movie characters, and other figures that remind them of themselves,” Rachel Wright, a New York-based psychotherapist, told me. “If everyone can be represented, it creates a culture of acceptance, rather than one of ignorance, fear, and hate.”
Thankfully, things are changing for the better, and to see Mattel leading the push for inclusion is especially meaningful. This isn’t the company’s first attempt at inclusion. In 1997, the company introduced Barbie’s friend Becky, who was in a wheelchair. But despite several redesigns, her wheelchair never fit in the Barbie Dreamhouse, and she was eventually discontinued.
The symbolism here is rich – and people with disabilities are all too familiar with this message. Accessibility is often an afterthought, and people with disabilities are expected to conform to the able-bodied world, or risk being cast aside.
“Becky’s departure matters, because the truth is Becky didn’t fit into Barbie’s world,” disability advocate Karin Hitselberger wrote in a blog post. “Becky’s discontinuance reflects how we are often taught to think about disability, in terms of fixing people rather than society. It matters because it echoes a way of thinking that suggests people are problematic when they are different.”
Maybe with the new Barbie in a wheelchair, future generations of children with disabilities will come to embrace what makes them different instead of feeling shame. Being disabled profoundly shapes a person’s experiences. It’s an important part of one’s identity, and like Doctor Barbie or Black Barbie, it should be represented and normalized.
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And for some people with disabilities, a wheelchair even plays a key role in their personal success. It’s both a powerful symbol of freedom and independence, and a tool that helps people live a full and meaningful life.
As Barbie celebrates her 60th birthday next month, my hope is that these lessons surrounding representation, inclusivity and empathy will inspire a new generation.