Erin Kelly, a writer with cerebral palsy, explores the impact of one little girl’s courage to petition for the manufacturers of American Girl dolls to make a doll with a disability.
The bond between a little girl and her doll is much like that of a man and his dog—unmistakably unique and seemingly unbreakable. When she looks into the perfectly manufactured eyes of her BFF, she might see a piece of herself and perhaps even feel empowered in some way.
That couldn’t be truer for 10-year-old Melissa Shang, who suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare form of muscular dystrophy.
In a letter to the makers of American Girl dolls explaining her unique love and connection with the company’s product, she asks the public to sign this petition that she started with her sister where she writes:
“Disabled girls are American girls, too. They have the same thoughts and feelings [as other girls], and deserve to have their stories told.”
This may seem like an odd thing to tell someone who makes dolls for a living, but Shang’s request for the company to “make a doll who is in a wheelchair” is legitimate, as she’s been considered an outcast by her peers at her school—where she first fell in love with American Girl dolls.
In the introduction of her petition, Shang points out that her disability also forces her to sit on the sidelines as she watches other girls run, jump and play. However, when I read the reason why she made this request—so that others might come to learn and understand what it’s like to have a disability—it shook me to my core.
I was a carbon copy of this little girl almost twenty years ago. Not only did I look like her—with long, coal black hair and oriental eyes—but I was the outcast sitting on the sidelines. My cerebral palsy didn’t allow me to be a part of the outside world, and having surgery on both of my legs when I was around her age didn’t help my confidence.
I was ready for a change, just like Melissa is. I needed to find my own way to create that change—and I have, through my career as a writer.
In reading her story, I think she’s well on her way to making that discovery for herself, as well as becoming a strong, poised young woman. The fact that she’s reaching out to a major manufacturer, asking them to make a doll that resembles her, is a true act of bravery. It shows that she’s not afraid to question and challenge the world. This little girl is setting an example for young women around the world and she’s making a bold statement about diversity.
It’s the very foundation of this particular company—making dolls for every girl of every size, shape and ethnicity, even going as far as customizing dolls to look like their owners—which begs the question: Is Melissa’s request outlandish in this day in age?
Whether or not she was aware of the scope of her request, it does bring the issues of change and equality to the forefront.
Diversity inevitably brings change, whether it’s physical or emotional. The way in which we put those changes on display has the potential to show how diverse we truly are. If the manufacturers of American Girl dolls would indeed make a doll with a disability, it could open the eyes of many (both disabled and non-disabled) around the world, as well attract new customers to the company.
The doll could be used as a model to reinforce the ever-so prevalent lesson of equality. There’s a certain level of fear, almost inferiority that comes with having a disability. It’s a fear that I think most people inherently ignore and are numb to because they’re not the ones with that very distinct set of circumstances, or it could be a matter of simply being unaware.
That spawns second-hand knowledge that could prove to be damaging. However, if people have something solid to base their opinions and observations off of, perhaps fear would give way to redefining what it means to be equal.
If manufactured, I think this doll would have the potential to do just that and more. Even though I’ve seen a doll with a cast on its leg and in a wheelchair while recovering from surgery many years ago, it was used as an educational tool to comfort children who had to have casting done. I would have liked others to be able to benefit from it.
Melissa’s story first appeared in an article published earlier this month by Change.org. Her petition has garnered national attention and her will to make her voice heard reminds us that while we may be a lamb on the inside, we can find the courage to roar like a lion on the outside.
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