Dolls in Wheelchairs: Empowering or Patronizing?

My 8-year-old daughter, Gracie, was very excited to get a wheelchair for Christmas. No, this is not a story about a young girl with a disability finally overcoming political, bureaucratic or financial hardships to get a wheelchair. The wheelchair was for her American Girl Doll.

The mission of American Girl, according to their website, is “Helping girls become their very best. At American Girl, we celebrate girls and all that they can be. That’s why we develop products and experiences that help girls grow up in a wholesome way, while encouraging them to enjoy girlhood through fun and enchanting play.”

The company was originally well known for its dolls and books depicting important historical times and soon grew exponentially by creating a line of dolls that can be ordered to resemble their owner. This, of course, was a revolution in the white, blonde Barbie doll world. Hundreds of combinations of hair color, length, texture, skin color and tone, and eye color meant that today’s girl could create a mirror image of themselves. The company has literally hundreds of doll accessories, all expensive and prettily packaged, why not have a wheelchair, too?

I have been working with and on behalf of people with disabilities for the past 20 years—here at ICS for eight. I work and socialize with people with disabilities, including people who use wheelchairs. My daughter has met lots of wheelchair users. I have never shied away from her natural curiosity about why my friend so and so is in a wheelchair, and we’ve talked about the importance of accessibility at party locations and other gatherings so our friends in wheelchairs can be in the space just like us. After many years in the same school, Gracie recently learned that one of her much admired friends is a student with special needs. She wanted to know more about his diagnosis of autism, and she accepted what I explained to her in stride. But even with all of this, it kind of blew my mind that, unbeknownst to me, she asked my aunt for a wheelchair for her doll.

From my work with people with disabilities, I know that the disability perspective on these things is often different from the general public. As an example, the general public loves Jerry Lewis and holds him up as a hero for raising money for “Jerry’s Kids.” Many people with disabilities protested Jerry Lewis and his Muscular Dystrophy telethon for its depiction of people with disabilities as needy children forever in search of a cure instead of adults who accept their disabilities and have a right to fully participate in society.

So I wondered, is this a great thing, this availability of a wheelchair for an American girl doll? Does it normalize mobility aides, empowering girls who use wheelchairs to see themselves? Is it patronizing, further perpetuating stereotypes? Or is it just another product in a hopelessly consumerist society?

To get the answer, I went to the great town square of the digital age, Facebook, and asked the question.

Here is what I learned–

I have a lot of FB friends who have kids with disabilities. I did not know that. For the moms of kids with disabilities, many felt that normalizing disability was a key to lessening the stigma. We are all different; we are just different in different ways, said these moms. A few of my teacher friends said they included similar toys (wheelchairs and walkers) in their classrooms, and the kids used them frequently. The kids saw the wheelchairs and walkers as part of what’s out there in the world, but the teachers also acknowledge that little kids really like things with wheels.

Lots of people called my daughter sweet and/or inspirational, two frames in which adults with disabilities, to their great dismay, often see their lives represented. My disability rights advocate/ friends with disabilities were less impressed with my daughter’s sweetness and thought in a much more practical way, much like the teachers—that kids like stuff and a wheelchair is more stuff—but they also agreed with the moms of kids with disabilities who see this accouterment as a way to normalize what is normal for so many people who happen to have mobility limitations.

Many years ago, I worked with an advocate who was often quoted as saying that 20 years into the future, people would look back at all of the controversy and concerns about accessibility and people with disabilities and wonder, what was all the fuss? He expected that by then, people with disabilities would be visible everywhere–at school, at work, in the grocery store, on the bus.

So here we are today, in that future. Many have argued that we are in a post- (fill in the issue: gay, racial, feminist) period, and that these “differences” don’t matter anymore. But that’s not at all the case for people with disabilities today, who still battle for equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal rights, in health care, education, employment. Just read about ICS’s Women’s Health Access Program.

Will wheelchairs for dolls help? Maybe, in a small way. When I asked my daughter why she wanted the wheelchair, she told me that some kids have disabilities. Why shouldn’t one of her dolls have a disability, too?

1 reply
  1. Karen
    Karen says:

    Thank for sharing this personal story. The personal is political. And good for American Girl for teaching children that “one size does not fit all”.

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