Doll in a wheelchair challenges our fears

In Barbie’s dream world everything is pink, the girls are pretty and the boys are eunuchs. But even Barbie had to open her eyes to a broader vision of the world recently with the release of Share-A-Smile Becky. Becky is in a wheelchair — a pink and purple wheelchair. In an effort to include more elements of the population in Barbie’s community, Mattel introduced the doll last week. Ours is a diverse and colorful age, yet we are still fearful of the differences that exist in our communities. And while there are some prevailing questions about the manner in which Becky is portrayed, the effort to stave off that fear is worthy of praise.
Children are told not to stare at anyone in a wheelchair, so they look away and continue to look away into adulthood. The Disabled in Action Singers, a group of activists with disabilities, sing a song called “Let the Children Stare,” which acknowledges that it is better for kids to look and ask questions than to ignore someone who appears different. We serve ourselves and our neighbors better by acknowledging their condition. And walking down the street is a more pleasant excursion if we are not apprehensive of the people we meet.
Advocates and people with disabilities are calling for appropriateness in the doll’s design. Becky should be dressed to sit, for instance. Considering that Barbie is hardly shaped with respect to an actual female form, however, it is not surprising that Becky is not truly proportional. One activist claims that having a Barbie-shaped doll counteracts the impression that people in wheelchairs are asexual. The most poignant critique came from a young Courage Center resident who questioned why Barbie wasn’t the one in the wheelchair rather than her friend Becky.
While dolls of color were introduced in 1960, it wasn’t until 1980 that Barbie herself was portrayed as a woman of color. Barbie reflects the culture in which she exists and, although each of us could become a part of this minority group at any time, still a taboo exists that is slowly dissolving. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial erected earlier this year does not portray Roosevelt in his wheelchair. In his time, a disability would have been seen as a weakness, and although Roosevelt wholeheartedly supported organizations for people with disabilities, he went to great lengths to downplay his own reliance on a wheelchair.
The taboo is based on a misunderstanding about the nature of a disability in someone’s life. Many people who are stricken with illness or injury learn to incorporate, even celebrate, their disability. Unlike in Roosevelt’s era, our time is marked by the pride and political power that helped push through the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. We all should learn to celebrate the lives of people who are challenged by physical and mental disabilities.
For children, incorporating the differences in our culture into their play helps them see this rich diversity early in life. For their parents, the effort can only be worthwhile if they actively seek to show their children this diversity. The challenge is now theirs to buy the doll and give their children a broader view of the world.