More Dolls With Disabilities By Mainstream Toymakers Hitting Store Shelves : Shots - Health News Longtime toymakers are broadening their horizons — offering dolls and other figures with hearing aids, wheelchairs and insulin pumps in city scenes, not just hospitals. That's a start, activists say.

Dolls With Disabilities Escape The Toy Hospital, Go Mainstream

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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?


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.

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