As you may have already noticed, we love American Girl dolls here. So, when I saw the Change.org petition by an adorable little girl pleading with American Girl to create a doll who looks like her, I couldn’t stop getting emotional.
Her name is Melissa Shang, she is 10 years old, and she has Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a form of muscular dystrophy. In less than a minute, she perfectly sums up why kids with disabilities deserve to have a doll who’s like them. In her petition, she explains her love of American Girl dolls:
When I was seven, like most of my classmates, I fell in love with American Girl dolls—historical and modern girls with stories about overcoming obstacles…
Of all the American Girl dolls, my favorites are the Girl of the Years. Every year, American Girl introduces a brand-new character with a story about finding success in the face of challenges today. Girls of the Year come from all different places, from Hawaii to New Mexico, and they help girls learn what it’s like to be someone else…Girls of the Year have helped me understand how it feels to be someone else.
However, none of the American Girl Girls of the Year are like me. None of them have a disability.
Shang goes onto explain her motivation:
Being a disabled girl is hard. Muscular Dystrophy prevents me from activities like running and ice-skating, and all the stuff that other girls take for granted. For once, I don’t want to be invisible or a side character that the main American Girl has to help: I want other girls to know what it’s like to be me, through a disabled American Girl’s story.
Disabled girls might be different from normal kids on the outside. They might sit in a wheelchair like I do, or have some other difficulty that other kids don’t have. However, we are the same as other girls on the inside, with the same thoughts and feelings. American Girls are supposed to represent all the girls that make up American history, past and present. That includes disabled girls.
In late 2012, I wrote about how American Girl began offering accessories in their “Special Sparkle” section that allow more customization for the dolls, including a service dog with harness, an allergy-free lunch, and a hearing aid. All of these are great–as a start.
Positive body image isn’t just about weight and height; it involves all sorts of factors, many of which are shown to have a strict range of acceptability in mainstream society. To be outside of those standards often means being deemed unattractive, unworthy, unpresentable. Ableism goes right along with all other forms of prejudice, and is equally hurtful and unacceptable.
As I’ve mentioned once or twice here, I occasionally walk with a cane due to having fibromyalgia, and while people are often really sweet to you when you’ve got a noticeable “special need” like that, they also frequently treat you like a piece of pitiful, ugly and completely nonsexual glass. One of the reasons I just avoid going out on days when I need my cane is because I would rather just not walk around than deal with feeling awkward or embarrassed (which is, in itself, embarrassing to admit). I can’t imagine having to deal with other people being condescending and the like every single day, let alone as a child.
It’s important to create toys that all children can relate to. When kids play with toys that look like themselves, as well as toys that look differently than themselves, they aren’t just playing; they’re learning that no matter how you look, you are “normal” and you are just as worthy as everybody else. With reference to children with disabilities in particular, it’s so important to ensure they don’t feel like their roles are relegated to Tiny Tim characters (as Melissa says, she doesn’t want “to be invisible or a side character that the main American Girl has to help”).
Even the comments on Melissa’s video show just how many other people wish this void could be filled, too:
Here’s the full video of Melissa’s very rational request. If you’d like to sign her petition to Jean McKenzie, do so here!