My sister and I sit on the orange shag carpet in our family room surrounded by miniature evening gowns, wool blazers, tiaras, tiny shoes, and hundreds of other clothing items for our Barbies. Currently, our dolls are asleep in their beds made of shoeboxes and washcloths, but it’s about time for my Barbie to get up because her boyfriend is coming to get her for a date.

Her boyfriend rolls up in my brother’s GI Joe’s jeep. Even though GI Joe is dressed in army fatigues, I dress my Barbie in the most beautiful, green, brocade, evening gown and then bend her legs at the hip and plop her in the back of the jeep to go on her date. (They go to a movie on every date because it’s the only date my ten-year-old mind can conjure.) After driving around the family room behind the end tables and past the couch to the television (pretend movie theater), GI Joe brings Barbie home and gives her a quick kiss, as I smoosh their faces together to make that happen.

This scenario, or ones just like this, have been and are still being played out all over the world by young girls and boys including those with disabilities ever since Barbie was invented in the late 1950s. My sister had the original Barbie who was made after the likes of famous movie stars of the time. She is beautiful and perfect in every way and so are her tiny clothes. I wanted to grow up to be just like her and so did millions of other little children.

Fortunately, I did not grow up to be just like Barbie because it’s actually impossible and if it were possible, I would be a freak. A young college student, Galia Slayen, who once suffered from an eating disorder researched what Barbie would be like if she were a real woman, Slayen states in a Huffington Post article, “If Barbie were an actual woman, she would be 5’9″ tall, have a 39″ bust, an 18″ waist, 33″ hips and a size 3 shoe…she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.” For more than 50 years, Barbie perpetuated a false image of a real woman to millions of little girls who looked nothing like her.

At some point, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, added dolls with different skin tones and hair textures to match those of the children who play with them. But, it took almost fifty years for Mattel to address individuals with special needs or disabilities, and even at that, they got it wrong.

In 1990 the US government passed the ADA, Americans Disabilities Act, which required businesses and public places to be made. accessible to those with disabilities. However, when Mattel came out with its wheelchair Barbie in the late 90s, they made one big mistake: the wheelchair did not fit in the Barbie home. Imagine the disappointment of all the little children who wanted these Barbies because they finally “looked” like them. This Barbie disappeared from Mattel within a few years, but the company finally got it right in 2019 when they came out with a new wheelchair Barbie who also has a ramp for the Barbie Dreamhouse.

Happily, for those with disabilities, Shaun Heasley reported in DisabilityScoop.com, Mattel decided to start developing more inclusive Barbies in 2020. In May of 2022, Barbie introduced a doll with behind the ear hearing aids so thousands of children can see themselves reflected in their dolls. But just as important, other children without disabilities will be introduced to a world where everyone looks different and that is okay.

Even as I write this today, I realize maybe I would have been more satisfied with myself in middle school, if as a child, I had played with Barbies with different body shapes and skin colors who were imperfectly perfect! Maybe I wouldn’t have thought I needed to look like Barbie for a boy to ask me to a movie. We are all unique and special in our own ways, and I am happy Mattel is finally reflecting that in Barbie.

#vocationalrehabilitation #peoplewithdisabilities #wearealldifferent