Young girls who play with dolls have many more options today than the array of tiny supermodels that once overloaded toy store shelves.
They can choose, or custom-order, dolls with dark or light skin, dolls with curvy or petite bodies, and dolls with glasses, birthmarks, and scars.
Now options are becoming available for children with medical conditions and disabilities who want their dolls to look just like them, thanks to several grassroots campaigns and a couple of toy companies taking the lead.
In January, American Girl — a line of dolls arguably more popular than Barbie — began offering a diabetes care kit for their dolls. The kit includes an insulin pump, glucose tablets, and a blood sugar monitor.
The product came out about two years after a girl from Wisconsin who has diabetes began a petition asking for such an accessory for her American Girl doll, although a spokesperson for the company told Healthline the kit was already in the pipeline at the time of the petition.
The company sells other accessories like crutches, wheelchairs, service dogs, and allergy-free lunch packs complete with a miniature EpiPen.
Dolls with Disabilities
In Britain, another grassroots campaign called Toy Like Me convinced Playmobil to begin working on a line of figures with disabilities.
They are due out sometime this year or next year.
Its founder, Rebecca Atkinson, started the movement after realizing that the sea of toys her children had amassed included no representations of disability, be it tiny plastic wheelchairs, hearing aids, or canes.
“There are 770,000 children in the U.K. with disabilities and more than 150 million children worldwide,” Atkinson wrote in the Guardian last year. “Yet these children arrive into a world where, even before they have left their mother’s lap, they are excluded by the very industry that exists to create their entertainment, the objects that fuel their development, the starting blocks of life: toys.”
Frustrated, Atkinson and friends began making their own toy accessories to reflect some of the disabilities that kids face, starting with a tiny cochlear implant made from a button and clay, which they outfitted on a Tinker Bell doll.
Atkinson herself has partial hearing and vision loss.
“I’d grown up wearing hearing aids and never seen myself represented anywhere. There were no deaf people on TV, in the comics I read, or the toys I played with,” she wrote.
About a dozen “kitchen table” dolls with disabilities businesses have followed, Atkinson told Healthline, comprising a small part of the doll makeover movement, which includes an Australian woman who wipes the makeup off Bratz dolls.
Hearing Aids, Canes, and Cleft Lips
Somewhere between Playmobil and the kitchen table, several midsize toy makers are responding to the demand for a broader range of dolls and doll accessories.
Makies uses 3-D printers to create hearing aids and canes to go with their custom-made dolls. Weesie Pals makes stuffed animals with underdeveloped ears and cleft lips.
Dolls give a child “a miniature world of downsized objects and people where she is the giantess and the trucks, cars, and airplanes are easily manipulable,” Yale psychology professor Jerome Singer wrote in a 1994 essay. “She can reshape her own bedtime or feeding experience with the help of some props we adults can offer — dolls, toy beds, or toy kitchen tables.”
Add to that list wheelchairs, diabetes pumps, and hearing aids.
Lakeshore Learning Materials, a company that has offered disability accessories like protective helmets and crutches for their dolls since the mid-90s, believes such props can help children who aren’t disabled learn about and accept children who are.
“By providing adaptive equipment that can be used with our multicultural dolls, teachers and parents can facilitate discussions with their children to help them understand and be comfortable with those with special needs when they see them,” Patti Clark, vice president of product development for the company, wrote Healthline in an email. “And for those children with special needs themselves, they can finally find and engage in play with a doll that is just like them.”
Some parents worry that these toys paint a one-dimensional picture of children with disabilities. They also worry the dolls call unwanted attention to children’s differences and that they may become objects of ridicule rather than empathy.
“The only drawback would be to not 'label' the doll as disabled,” Stacey Shackelford, Ph.D., a professor at Austin Community College, wrote Healthline in an email.
A teacher introducing the doll to a classroom would have to be careful about the language used to describe the doll, she said.
Child psychiatrist Dr. Kristopher Kaliebe told Healthline it’s unlikely the dolls would cause more harm than good.
“I would say, yes, these dolls could bring up negative emotions in kids,” he said, such as traumatic memories of medical procedures. But “I don’t see negative emotions as being harmful or something that we need to avoid.”
Every child will respond differently, he said, and some toys may be better than others when it comes to helping kids understand and accept disabilities.
“Let’s experiment and see what people like and what helps them and have it available,” he said. “But with it not being available we would never know.”