When my family was growing up a decade or so ago, American Girl dolls were big. The girls loved reading the books that told the story of a doll that represented a specific historical era. Mostly, though, they lusted after all the very expensive clothing, accessories and furniture displayed in the slick catalog.
One year, Santa thought it would be very cool to put an American Girl doll wheelchair under the Christmas tree. But the girls were far less impressed with it than I was — and today it sits high on a shelf in its original box with nary a dent on its frame nor gash in a tire.
“Wheelchair-as-doll-accessory” is not good enough for 10-year-old Melissa Shang, who wants the American Girl company to create and sell a Girl of the Year for 2015 who uses wheelchair so that all girls can learn about what it’s like being born with a disability. Melissa, who lives in Paoli, Pa., has a form of muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair.
Every year the American Girl company offers a Girl of the Year doll with a modern story designed to show little girls what they can accomplish if they believe in themselves. For 2014, the doll is a dancer named Isabelle: “Explore the world of this inspired dancer who discovers her own way to shine,” says the American Girl web site of Isabelle.
“When I saw that the ‘Girl of the Year’ was going to be a dancer, I was really sad,” Melissa told the International Business Times. “And then my sister and I talked about what I wanted, and we decided to do a petition.”
Taking her campaign to the Internet, Melissa wrote on change.org: “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.”
So far, the company has responded the way you’d expect, with a thanks for Melissa’s interest, a compliment praising her for her “amazing spirit and positive attitude,” and a brush-off explaining that “we are always considering new ways to enhance our product lines.”
Bottom line? Don’t expect to see an American Girl doll with a disability because it won’t be as profitable as the company would like. (By the way, American Girl is a subsidiary of the toy giant Mattel.)
But what a wonderful tool such a doll would be to improve the image of disability and promote inclusiveness. And what better group to start with than young girls whose prejudices have not been formed yet.
Melissa explains it thusly: “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. Through Saige, I learned what it’s like to be an artist and horseback rider. Through McKenna, I learned what it’s like to be a gymnast.”
All Melissa wants is a chance for other girls to understand what it’s like to be her.
You can see her video and sign a petition at change.org.