I found no disabled characters in the movies my children watched, so I pointed out that in “Finding Nemo,” Dory struggled to remember things, while Nemo had one fin that was smaller than the other. I once drove more than an hour to buy a wheelchair that would fit one of Claire’s dolls, even though it was part of a “ski accident” toy designed to portray a wheelchair as a temporary nuisance. I threw the packaging away before giving it to Claire. I sought hearing aids made for Build-A-Bear stuffies and American Girl dolls. I searched for children’s books that featured people with disabilities, only to find that the few that had been published were hard to find or out of print.
Over the past year, however, I’ve noticed a marked change. Disability is going mainstream, and parents of children with disabilities no longer have to look hard to find representations of children who look like theirs.
As part of their new Fashionista line, Mattel recently introduced two disabled Barbies, one with a prosthetic leg and one with a wheelchair and ramp. Netflix released a show, “Raising Dion,” which features a girl with a disability as the best friend of the title character. Peppa Pig introduced a disabled girl as a permanent character. On Broadway, Tiny Tim, the disabled boy in “A Christmas Carol,” was played for the first time by boys with cerebral palsy. At Radio City Music Hall, the first visibly disabled Rockette took the stage. And Sonia Sotomayor’s book “Just Ask,” about children with a range of disabilities, became a bestseller.
Most recently, American Girl introduced its first character with a visible disability, Joss Kendrick, who is deaf. Joss can hear a little out of one ear and uses a hearing aid that comes standard with each doll.
These changes show my daughter that her disability does not need to limit her and that society is slowly tearing down barriers put in her way, both physically and metaphorically. Girls like her who use a wheelchair can be a doctor or scientist like Barbie as long as they are given a way to get into the building. Being born deaf or hard-of-hearing like Joss does not mean that a girl cannot surf or be a cheerleader, as long as her peers make small adaptations in how they communicate with her.
Moreover, the introduction of a Barbie who uses a wheelchair alongside a Barbie who is a “Unicorn Believer” allows kids to see disabilities as one part of a whole person. These kids may not give a second thought to a child who enters their class in a wheelchair beyond asking that whether, like Barbie, the child needs a ramp to get into school. Those who read about Joss Kendrick needing her friends to look at her when they speak (so she can read their lips) may not think twice about doing the same when they meet someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.
With the introduction of disabled people and characters into their everyday world through play, books and entertainment, all children are learning early on that disability is not something to be pitied and hidden away. Instead, they may recognize members of their own communities, including their friends and neighbors, who are disabled, helping them learn we are all responsible for ensuring everyone is included. It also teaches them that inclusion usually involves only small adjustments.
Moreover, American Girl is showing us what is possible when children learn about their disabled peers in a way that presents itself naturally, rather than learning about disability as a part of a one-off special lesson or TV episode. When Joss Kendrick’s hearing loss is introduced in the accompanying book, it is portrayed as an advantage rather than a hindrance because Joss can remove her hearing aid when she doesn’t want to listen to her annoying brother. Many children would probably do the same if they could.
And Joss’s story is consistent with voices of the disability community such as Rebecca Cokley, who has explained how her experience with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, offers her advantages. Those include membership in a strong community with a rich history that she is able to pass down to her own children, and insights that can inform policies and laws to benefit everyone.
These representations are monumental for disabled children. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The legislation removed many physical barriers to access for people with disabilities, but it does nothing to guarantee that people with disabilities will be accepted and included as part of everyday society. There is no legislation that can force that. Acceptance has been a hard-fought battle, but maybe these small victories in the toy aisle are the greatest indicator of progress yet to come.