Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why I don't believe 'disabled' dolls invoke pity

By Louise Kinross

I was so psyched when I heard that British toy company Makies was creating dolls with disabilities and differences, like a birthmark on the face, in response to the #ToyLikeMe campaign run by parents of kids with disabilities.


So when I saw this New York Post piece by Kirsten Fleming criticizing the move, I was puzzled.

Kirsten writes that she has a "massive birthmark" on the left side of her face. Growing up with a doll that looked like her would have "magnified the very thing I learned not to focus on," she writes. And more than that, she argues that creating dolls with disabilities or "quirks" that set them apart is "code for condescending pity."  

I think Kirsten is wrong.

When our family adopted two children from Haiti 10 years ago, it was painful to take them into a mainstream toy store and find only white dolls. What does it say to a child when they don't see themselves mirrored in the culture around them?

Creating dolls that look like real kids, whether it's different races or abilities or with birthmarks, doesn't generate "pity" for those kids. It allows those kids to see themselves reflected back, and it allows their peers to make kids with differences part of their imaginative play. 

Last year 10-year-old Melissa Shang and her sister Eva got almost 150,000 people to sign a petition asking American Girl to release a doll with a disability storyline. Melissa has a rare form of muscular dystrophy and is the only student in her class who uses a wheelchair. "I hope they learn how it feels to be in a wheelchair and how it feels to be such an outsider in middle school," she told BLOOM in an interview. "Most importantly, I want them to know I'm just like them."

American Girl declined, missing what appeared to be a slam-dunk marketing opportunity.

I think Kirsten Fleming is a lone voice. And there's something mean-spirited about her words, as if she's really never gotten over being singled out for her own birthmark. 

In her piece she recounts the story of a family with a toddler with red birthmarks covering her legs in this way: "They complained that when they went out, her splotchy legs drew persistent stares. How inconvenient for them."

What do you think?

5 comments:

This article is so sad. In addition to having very narrow views of both disability and diversity (and you are right Louise, in that this is also a diversity issue), the author has a lot of work to do in terms of self-acceptance. Her argument boils down to "well I never did that, and I'm fine", which is so completely weak and backwards that I don't even know where to begin. She is clearly not a parent to a kid with a disability, so why is she even commenting on these dolls? Don't like them? Fine, don't buy one. I can't stand this type of journalistic approach in which positive things are vapidly broken down all in the name of a few clicks. (especially with someone who has no right speaking on this issue... I mean, she has a birthmark, but has she ever met a kid in a wheelchair?)

It's her opinion and she's voicing it. She did NOT want a doll mirroring her issues. I've known kids with cancer and loss of hair wanting a doll with hair even when they've lost their hair and American Girl has come up with dolls without hair for this very situation. So for those girls (and in this particular case, it's been the vast majority, in my experience), we get them the dolls WITH hair. There are some that do pick a doll without hair or their parent picks one.

What Kristin is missing is that by not offering certain doll types, they are NOT available to some who would like to have them and could benefit Those who don't want them can simply demur.

The disabled dolls do not tend to sell well. I know Target and some other stores took a bath on dolls without hair. I saw them reduced to nearly nothing--I bought a bunch of them just for their outfits and pitched the dolls, and then there were still many left to be ground up and returned as waste to China. So American Girl is not likely to do disabled dolls--it opens flood gates to having every disability and ailment represented, and they do not want to do so. Doesn't pay. They do have the dolls without hair, wheel chairs and other vendors carry equipment that the 18 inch sized dolls can use for various disabilities. It comes down to profit.

I hope the Maki doll works out well.

I think Kirsten is confused about why families share their stories in the media. She spent her childhood learning to avoid her birthmark. She apparently had thick skin even when she was young. Good for her. I'm glad she never felt ostracized. Not everyone has her experience and it's close minded for her to think every child lives with their differences the way she does. The idea of the dolls doesn't bother me. I find it funny that she says toys in her pre-Internet youth were not "beauty standards." Apparently she and her friends never played with Barbie. I found her article to be very elitist is tone. That I would argue, is far more unattractive than her birthmark. I think the dolls were created to give children something to identify with, to further awareness, and to desensitize the gawker types. Today, the goal is to embrace differences, not avoid them. That doesn't have to be Kirsten's goal. She can spend her time worrying about tanning on the Jersey Shore.

Dolls with disabilities are great. What I don't want to see happen though, is for dolls with disabilities to be purchased and given ONLY to kids with disabilities.

I wrote about it in this post - http://www.meriahnichols.com/dolls-with-down-syndrome/ - but in a nutshell, I'm saying that it would have meant a lot more to me to see a doll with scars or hearing aids being played with by a typically-developing child than it would have meant for me to be given a doll that was like me, with scars and hearing aids.

I wouldn't buy my daughter a doll with Down syndrome. But I would buy her a doll who is a wheelchair user. I would buy my friend's child who IS a wheelchair user the doll with Down syndrome.

Hi Meriah -- I totally agree -- the dolls are for ALL kids, to enable them to imagine and play with all kinds of storylines. Thanks for posting your link. How are you???