When Dominika Tamley chose "Isebelle," her American Girl doll, she picked a toy whose hair and eye color matched her own. But the 10-year-old is quick to point out that's not the only way the doll resembles the real child who plays with her.
"She's like a mini-me," Tamley explained with pride. "Because she has a hearing aid and I have a hearing aid."
American Girl has for years offered a wide variety of accessories reflecting a range of disabilities. Arm crutches, leg braces, a sporty red wheelchair and allergy-free lunch sets. You can order a doll without hair — like a child with cancer — or one outfitted with a diabetes kit that includes insulin pumps, pens, glucose tablets and a blood sugar monitor.
"The designer who worked on that had Type 1 diabetes, and it was a really personal item for him to create," said Stephanie Spanos, a public relations manager at American Girl. The designers developed the diabetes kit with the input of doctors, nurses and dietitians at American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, Wis., Spanos added. "We introduced that at the very beginning of 2016 and it's been in and out of stock all year."
American Girl dolls, which can cost more than $100, often come with a built-in back story, such as Nellie, the Irish immigrant orphan, or Cécile, the Creole girl growing up in 1850s New Orleans. Some activists remain irked that no American Girl comes with a built-in back story related to a disability. (A petition to add one last year, during the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was unsuccessful.)
Still, more and more mainstream companies are adding characters with disabilities to their roster of toys. Earlier this year, Lego introduced, for the first time, a figure of a little boy in a wheelchair. Significantly, he's not in the hospital — instead, he's part of a city park set, representing people with disabilities out in the world. And in 2013, Toys R Us added its Journey Girls line of dolls, with accessories including wheelchairs and crutches.
Is this good business? Or just good public relations?
"It's not about PR for us," said the chief merchandising officer of Toys R Us, Richard Barry. "Our job as a company is to make sure we have the best assortment for all kids." Barry pointed out that Toys R Us catalog has also started including children with disabilities in its photos of kids playing with the company's toys.
Representation of kids with disabilities was harder to find at a big-box store in the suburbs of Washington D.C., where Rebecca Cokley took me shopping. Cokley is executive director of the National Council on Disability, and the first female little person to have worked in the White House. She's 4 feet 2 inches tall and white, with red hair and freckles. "My family is interracial and interspatial," she said. "My husband's average height and African American. And, so, our kids are biracial dwarf kids."
There were all kinds of toys Cokely liked in the aisles — she's a Lego nerd and a big fan of Batgirl, a character with her own deep connection to the disability community. But it was nearly impossible to find a single toy that represented disability. In the Barbie aisle, we found chef Barbies, vet Barbies and gymnast Barbies.
"Why can't one of these come with a hearing aid?" Cokely wondered. And Mattel has stopped making Becky, Barbie's friend who uses a wheelchair (although you can still find Becky dolls to buy on secondary retail sites online.)
"And look — there's Barbie's inaccessible dream house!" Cokely said. "It's got a working garage, but the elevator is too small for a wheelchair." It would be tough for Becky to come over for a visit.
We had more luck in the Star Wars aisle. Cokely noticed a Luke Skywalker doll that comes with a prosthetic arm. "That counts!" she exclaimed, with a wry aside: "People do tend to claim Vader, but I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."
Aside from Luke, only one other toy (among many hundreds) explicitly represented a disability: Nemo. The friendly orange clownfish from the Pixar movie has one shortened fin, and the store sold a stuffed plush version.
"Both Finding Nemo and Finding Dory have been phenomenal resources for parents with disabilities," she said. "Not only in terms of showing good examples of kids with disabilities, but also the challenges of being that overprotective helicopter parent." She pointed out that some toys – such as My Little Pony — have been embraced by some disability activists, but that so much of the toy section represented missed opportunities.
"Why don't we have any GI Joes that are disabled vets?" Cokely asked. "Think about that, what that would mean to a young boy whose dad's a vet or whose mom's a vet. To see their parents' experience reflected in the toys — that would be massive."
Research by social psychologist Sian Jones of Goldsmith University of London, as well as that of others, shows that all children benefit from playing with toys representing disability — it heightens empathy.
And activist Rebecca Atkinson, who runs the Toy Like Me website in the United Kingdom, told me she'd love it if every toybox included a wheelchair and a seeing-eye dog for children to play with. (Atkinson's website points consumers towards toys that represent disability, and also creates playful images meant to inspire manufacturers, such as princesses with eye patches and scars, and superheros with tracheostomies.
This isn't a niche market, Cokely added. One in four people will experience a disability at some point in their lives. "Everyone has a family member with a disability," she said. "Everyone knows someone with a disability."
And playing with toys in an imagined world where, just like in real life, people walk or use wheelchairs or have hearing aids is a world where kids can imagine other kids — disabled and otherwise — as friends.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Disabled people have become more front and center in our society, and the toy industry has taken notice. It's creating more products that reflect the experience of kids with disabilities. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Dominika Tamley is 10 years old. She lives in Chicago. Her favorite toy is an American Girl doll.
DOMINIKA TAMLEY: She has brown hair and she has dark eyes, earrings like I do.
ULABY: They're so similar Dominika calls her doll a mini-me.
DOMINIKA: She's like a mini-me because she has a hearing aid and I have a hearing aid.
ULABY: American Girl's been ahead of the curve. You can buy American Girl crutches and wheelchairs that come in a sporty shade of red and allergy-free lunch sets. You can order a doll without hair, like a kid with cancer, or a tiny diabetes kit with insulin pumps and insulin pens. Stephanie Spanos is an American Girl spokeswoman.
STEPHANIE SPANOS: The designer who worked on that had Type 1 diabetes, and it was a really personal item for him to create.
ULABY: American Girl dolls often come with a backstory, like the Irish-American immigrant or the Creole girl from New Orleans. But the company has yet to create a doll who's specifically disabled. That's irked some activists. And the dolls can cost more than $100.
Other mainstream companies are starting to add characters like a little Lego boy in a wheelchair who, this year, became the company's first figure with a disability. And he wheels around a city park set, not a hospital. That shows people with disabilities out in the world. Toys R Us also added a line of dolls that can come with wheelchairs and crutches. So is this good business or just good PR?
RICHARD BARRY: It's not about PR for us.
ULABY: That's Toys R Us chief marketing officer Richard Barry.
BARRY: Our job as a company is to make sure that we have the best assortment for all kids.
ULABY: But how does that translate to a typical toy aisle?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It's Molly. A Molly.
ULABY: I went shopping in a northern Virginia Target with Rebecca Cokley. She runs the National Council on Disability. Cokley is a little person - 4 feet, 2 inches tall - and Caucasian with red hair and freckles.
REBECCA COKLEY: My husband's average height and African-American, and so our kids are biracial dwarf kids.
ULABY: First, we hit the Barbie aisle.
COKLEY: And there is Barbie's inaccessible dream house. It's got a working garage, but the elevator is too small for a wheelchair.
ULABY: That means Barbie's friend in a wheelchair, Becky, cannot come over. And Becky's been discontinued. Next, a Star Wars aisle where we have some luck. We find a Luke Skywalker doll with a prosthetic arm.
COKLEY: Now, Luke would count. And actually, Luke does have his robotic hand here. That's one.
ULABY: We found only one other toy representing disability.
COKLEY: Nemo - let's see.
ULABY: Nemo is a bright orange fish from the Pixar movie with one fin much smaller on one side than the other. So Luke Skywalker and the fish. That was all. Cokley and I wandered down an aisle filled with that most venerable of action figures, G.I. Joe.
COKLEY: Why don't we have any G.I. Joes that are disabled vets? Like, think about what that would mean to a young boy whose dad's a vet or whose mom's a vet to see their parents' experience reflected in the toys. That would be massive.
ULABY: Rebecca Cokley believes all kids should get a chance to play with these toys, not just kids with disabilities. After all, she says, 1 in 4 people will experience a disability at some point in their lives.
COKLEY: Everyone has a family member with a disability. Everyone knows somebody with a disability.
ULABY: And playing with toys in an imagined world where people walk and use wheelchairs and hearing aids is one where kids can imagine other kids, disabled and otherwise, as friends.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.