In an age of Trump madness, it may be good to focus on a concern that doesn’t have to do with the White House.
Let’s talk about dolls.
Barbie is the bestselling doll in history, and lately she has even embraced diversity. There are black Barbies, and in 2016 the top doll in their lineup was a Latina. At least as important, there are now available figurines in different body shapes, instead of the single, ridiculous, and unreal dimensions of the original blonde Barbie.
All well and good. Except in one case.
Ten years ago, in 1997, Mattel brought out Share-A-Smile Becky, who used a wheelchair. The chair was pink, of course, as was her backpack (actually true to life: many wheelchair users employ backpacks since they sit all day and pockets don’t really work). At first it was a great hit; 6,000 sold in just two weeks. Disability spokespersons praised the move, in that it helped with self-image for disabled youngsters and raised visibility. Back in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Dr. Kenneth Clark showed that dolls helped shape a child’s views of themself, and of the world.
But soon there were problems. Becky’s wheelchair couldn’t fit through the doors of the Barbie Dreamhouse (the quintessential accessory, opening the way to scads of other items), or into its elevator. Responding, Mattel said they were, “looking at the accessibility of all Barbie accessories.”
Flash to twenty years later. Becky still can’t fit in the elevator. As Monique Kulick, an accessibility advocate based in Ann Arbor, Michigan noted, “There's absolutely no way….It won't even fit with her legs sticking out. So pretty much in this house, Becky could go to the kitchen.” Even there, there’s nothing she could do but sit, as none of the appliances or features like sinks are accessible to wheelchair users, no adaptation to universal design.
What did change, instead, was Becky. First they shifted her name several times, then they considered making her wheelchair smaller, but never thought of changing the dimensions of the Dreamhouse, never thought of making it ADA compatible.
Finally, they came up with the ultimate solution. They simply discontinued the line. They made disabled Becky disappear, rather than changing her environment so she could thrive in it. Now the only Barbie without working legs is Mermaid Barbie. Mattel denies this is why they discontinued Becky but has never provided a reasonable alternative explanation, nor a date when the line might be started up again.
In so many ways this parallels real life. Many disability theorists and advocates argue that the problem is often not their physical condition, but society’s barriers. In many cases the former is quite manageable, provided accommodations are made to overcome obstacles. I’m a hemiplegic and use a motorized wheelchair, but still am a functioning professor thanks to things like ramps, curb cuts, elevators, and an adaptive vehicle. Without these I would probably be homebound. In either situation, my disability is the same; the difference is in how the environment changed around me.
And even more, just as some people are still scared of the disabled, and rather we just go away, Wheelchair Barbie is no longer a part of the Barbie World, is no longer visible.
Also, just like in our world, the real world, inaccessibility stinks. This is just wrong. What can you do? Here’s Mattel’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Mattel/. Ask them to bring back Becky; I just did. Maybe someday there’ll be a picket line of Barbie’s, asking for full inclusion of everyone.