Rolling Without Limits

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Dolls with Disabilities Teach Through Play
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Dolls with Disabilities Teach Through Play

My father, Ron, loved toys. He was interested in everything from antiques to the newest electronics, though he primarily collected lead soldiers. He showed me how toys can inform us about our collective history and reconnect us to our childhoods. Mainly, he demonstrated that toys are fun at any age.

I've accumulated lots of toys, including a variety of dolls. In the late 1970s, the puppets with disabilities, “Kids On The Block,” became popular. Around then, I acquired a soft-sided doll named Bobby. Bobby, about a foot tall, came with a Velcro clasped jogging suit, wrist watch, laced tennis shoes, and a wheelchair. His wheelchair, made by the stroller manufacturer, Graco, was surprisingly realistic.

In a sea of options, almost all of the able-bodied children in my life gravitate to playing with Bobby. They like helping him get dressed and pushing him in his wheelchair. I've witnessed how their curiosity about disabilities, usually seen as something to shy away from, is normalized through play. Additionally, they love attaching Bobby's wheelchair to their stuffed animals.

Children with disabilities in my life, however, show little interest in Bobby. Instead, they reach for the GI Joes and Barbies.

In June, the Mattel Company will release a Barbie that uses a wheelchair and a doll with a removable prosthetic leg. Other companies, such as Born Just Right, American Girl, and Reborn, already offer dolls with disabilities.

In reality, many of my friends have mixed feelings about their own prosthesis. Some find wearing their artificial limbs is more about making other people feel comfortable than about themselves. Some personalize their prosthesis with painted fingernails, piercings, tattoos, and scars. I've heard women say, “I like that my robotic arm makes me a cyborg."

Wheelchairs and other assistive equipment can be expensive; not seen as toys. Yet, many younger people with disabilities report their siblings and friends “playing” with their equipment. One of my brothers is really good at using my wheelchair like a skateboard, popping wheelies and jumping curbs.

When I'm out in public, children often ask me if they can play with my wheelchair. They manipulate the brake levers, put playing cards in the spokes and grip the handles to push me. One child even buried a half-eaten sandwich in my backpack.

Sometimes, when parents and grandparents see their children's curiosity about my disability, they ask me to answer a few questions. I'm generally glad to do so. One of the best kid questions: “How does your wheelchair help you?” And the worst adult comment: “If you don't behave, I'll put you in one of those things like her mom did to her.”

Years ago, my new neighbor, Ellen, asked to borrow one of my wheelchairs. She wanted a better sense of my experience. At the mall, I put her through an obstacle course: purchasing hot coffee, using the bathroom, browsing fine china, and trying on clothes in a dressing room. The “playing” experience changed Ellen.

I wonder how wheelchair Barbie will navigate her life. Will her college be accessible? What about her doctor's office? Will the ramp into her motor home be too steep? How will wheelchair Barbie navigate the snow and ice?

Lately, I've been thinking of using my wheelchair as an artist canvas and attaching my giant mermaid clamshell to the back of it. I'm ready to play.

Image credit: Photo by Author

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