I grew up with American Girl dolls. I had a Kirsten (because my heritage is Swedish American) and a Molly – because she had glasses! I loved that I had a doll who had to wear glasses like I did. It definitely helped me to understand that glasses were a normal part of my image and nothing to be embarrassed by.
I only wish they’d had the hearing aids for their dolls when I was a child. When I was 10 or 11 I got my first hearing aid. It was a behind the ear, purple, and you could see through it to see all the gears and pieces that made it work. When I first got it, I thought it was really cool. But then my classmates figured something out – they could tease me using the hearing aid. Whistling into it, yelling into it. One kid chewed gum right next to me as loudly as possible.
So I stopped wearing my hearing aid.
Like the glasses, I feel like having a doll who can wear a hearing aid, or who uses a wheelchair, or crutches – it normalizes the disability for children. American Girl is doing something which could theoretically help make growing up disabled a lot easier. Being able to show your friends or classmates “My doll has a hearing aid like I do” might help. Or maybe it won’t. But at least on the inside, you can play with a doll that has your disability, and you can take out your dolls hearing aid just like you do yours, and it would help YOU the child normalize being a person who needs adaptive devices. It isn’t just adaptive devices which the company is offering, however. They are also now offering dolls without hair – so that sick children can have dolls that look like them too. Again, acceptance is power.
To me, this isn’t just dolls having accessories – it’s a company choosing to help children understand themselves better, and to bring acceptance of themselves into their lives. There’s not a lot of movement when it comes to helping children with disabilities be accepted as “normal” in mainstream society. The wheelchair using Barbie named Becky was still used to reinforce the inspirational rhetoric surrounding people with disabilities, whereas the American Girl doll isn’t trying to say how amazing people with disabilities are, it’s trying to say that they just ARE.
The intention behind these dolls is almost as important as the dolls themselves, because their packaging, advertising, and description does impact children and how their families interact with the toys themselves. The presentation of a wheelchair Barbie may be significantly different from that of an American Girl.
I for one am pleased to see a mainstream dollmaker beginning to accept difference in ability, as they have always accepted difference in skin color, and in eyesight. I look forward to their continued push forward for diversity and acceptance.