Thursday, January 27, 2011

Disability Doll

Down Syndrome Dolls White Girl
Take a look at the doll in the picture. What do you see? You'll probably notice almost immediately that its face is not as “regular” as the rosebud-mouthed, snub-nosed dolls that come as standard in toy shops. But if you picked it up and examined it more closely, you'd see that they are not the only features that you don't find on a “normal” doll: a horizontal crease in the palm of the hand, the ears set low on the head, a flattened bridge across the nose, a slightly protruding tongue.

Down Syndrome Dolls White Girl

This is a Down's syndrome doll, designed with the aim of giving Down's children a toy that reflects themselves as they are, and not the mainstream version of physical perfection trailblazed by the likes of Barbie and Baby Annabel.

They are not the only “disability dolls” available on the market. Far from it. You can buy dolls with prosthetic limbs, walking frames, hearing aids, “blind” dolls complete with guide dogs. When Mattel launched Becky - Barbie's friend in a wheelchair - it sold out within two weeks. In the past few years, the toy industry has been waking up to the fact that it makes good financial sense to cater for overlooked consumer groups.
But Helga Parks, who is one of the few people producing Down's syndrome dolls, insists that money is not the motivating force for her (she sells around 2,000 dolls a year at $50 each - a nice annual earner of around $100,000). Many years ago in Germany, she says, she watched the face of her late niece, Angela, who had Down's, light up when she was given a doll with facial features like her own to play with. Angela, who died at the age of 9, pointed to her doll and said: “This is me.” Such toys are used in kindergartens in Germany to educate children about, and to destigmatise, disability. “It was very touching,” Parks says. “It made me realise how important toys like this are to help build self-esteem for kids with Down's.”
So she started marketing the dolls in the US, where she now lives, via her website, There have been some derogatory and offensive remarks (one blogger said: “The whole thing just reeks of a bad joke”) so Parks has had to put a disclaimer on her website. But the main reponse, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive.
Her new venture is producing hairless dolls - “Chemo Friends” - for children undergoing chemotherapy. The dolls come with a built-in port below the collarbone, which Parks says makes it easier to explain, for example, a catheter to a sick child. There is also an “Anatomical Teddy”, which has an oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, liver, bladder, anus and rectum, so that medical procedures can be explained in a less frightening way to children undergoing surgery. But it is the Down's dolls that have so far proved the biggest success. Parks also sells regularly to the UK, Australia, South America, Saudi Arabia and many European countries.
Meanwhile Donna Moore - whose company Downi Creations (, in South Carolina, makes eight different types of Down's doll - has been embraced by some professionals working with Down's children. This branch of the business is non-profit-making. A former special needs teacher who became close to Tim, a young boy with Down's, she became disabled herself when a rare eye disease, pseudoxanthoma elasticum, rendered her legally blind with no central vision. Unable to continue in her career, she says she felt a “God-sent” drive to create a Down's doll.
Now obstetricians use her toys to educate new parents about Down's syndrome, as do the staff of maternity wards. Photographs of her dolls, which include 13 features of Down's syndrome and an “incision” on the chest marked with a red heart to reflect the high number of Down's children who have to have heart surgery, were chosen to illustrate a textbook on special needs education.
On the website, Frank J. Murphy, managing director of a US parents' foundation, is quoted praising the dolls' “sheer beauty” and “positive portrayal”. Chris Burke, who played Corky, a young man with Down's syndrome, in the TV series Life Goes On, also gave his support. One of the dolls is named after Tim, now 24, who still visits Donna. “When a child with Down's syndrome picks up a regular doll, he doesn't see himself, he sees the world's perception of ‘perfect',” she says. “Our society is so focused on bodily perfection.”
Indeed it is. In their own way, disability dolls could be seen as an antidote to the “Bratzification” of children's toys. Many parents are appalled by the sexualisation of dolls such as Bratz, with their trout-pout lips, ultra-skinny waists, high heels, miniskirts and midriff-baring tops. Such enormous sultry eyes and oversized baby heads bear little relation to the realistic human form, yet they are hugely popular with young girls who may grow up receiving the subliminal message that this is the standard-bearer of female beauty. The recognition that disability exists in the toy industry at least redresses some of the balance.
Carol Boys, chief executive of the Down's Syndrome Association in the UK, says: “Anything that helps to 'normalise' Down's syndrome and promote inclusivity has to be a good thing. If the Down's syndrome dolls give joy to those with the condition and their siblings, we fully support them. However, there is a range of products on the market of varying quality and accuracy, so we would advise people to purchase with care.” Boys adds that it is difficult to know with any certainty what Down's children generally think of such toys: “We have no idea what they think of such dolls, because there has never been any research done to find out.”
However, some professionals have their reservations. Jenni Smith, a chartered educational psychologist in London, says: “I feel that children who have disabilities, including children with Down's syndrome, tend to see themselves as ‘like everyone else' and to offer a toy that ‘looks like them' may only emphasise the difference.”
She adds that, if a child has a temporary condition, such as a broken leg, which requires the use of a wheelchair, that child may feel an affiliation with Becky, who also needs a wheelchair. But those children who may have a lifelong condition such as cerebral palsy, which requires the long-term use of a wheelchair, “may wish to affiliate with a free-moving child and in fact see themselves as a normal, free-moving doll”.
“In early research into race stereotypes, in which black children were asked to choose from three dolls - one black, one brown and one white - and say which doll they would be most like, almost all chose the white doll,” Smith says. “This research is old and things may be different now, but it suggests that children want to identify with themselves as a positive, generally accepted image, ie, non-disabled, except in a short-term disability.”
It's too real: a doll should be an escape into fantasy
by Rosa Monckton
I am probably not the best person to write about dolls: I had only one doll as a child. It was a fragile, porcelain creature, attired, bizarrely, in a wedding dress, complete with veil. I looked at it through the cellophane lid of its box, and very rarely took it out.
However, my daughters went through all the doll phases, from unidentified ragdolls to Pippi Longstocking through to Barbie. So why do I find the idea of Down's syndrome dolls so offensive and patronising, particularly given that I have a 13-year-old daughter, Domenica, who has Down's?
I suppose the whole point about dolls is that they are a way of escape into a world of fantasy and make-believe. How many real people actually look like Barbie - apart from the surgically enhanced? What is freakish about these Down's syndrome dolls is that they look real, but are inanimate. When I showed pictures of them to Domenica her response was immediate: “Yuk, it would give me nightmares.” That might seem rather a shocking reaction but it does not indicate that she has any problem with real children who have Down's syndrome. She has a friend with the condition and treats her no differently than she would any other person. It is not the otherness of the Down's syndrome doll that she finds upsetting so much as its eerie realism and attention to detail. We would all find a doll that looked exactly like us equally disconcerting.
Domenica has reached an age when she is beginning to realise that she is different from other people, and her response is to throw herself into teenage culture. She has moved on from Barbie to other things. On her bedroom wall there is a huge Hannah Montana poster. Every night she stands in front of it, and asks Hannah Montana to step out of the poster and teach her to sing and dance. Hannah Montana is who Domenica wants to be: she does not see herself primarily, or even secondarily, as a child with Down's syndrome, and I am sure would not welcome a doll that would suggest anything different.
Domenica's childhood is as full of joy, pain and sorrow as any other. She should be defined by her common humanity rather than by her Down's syndrome. She does not want to live in a parallel world peopled with Down's syndrome dolls distinguishable from the rest. She does not want to be defined by her facial features, or by the gap between her big toe and the rest of her toes being wider than most, or that she is half the height of her peers. Still less would she want these differences portrayed in a series of sickly looking, politically correct mannequins.
Somehow I don't think many of these dolls will be taken out of their boxes.
It's 'orrible...but I like the thought behind it
by Simon Barnes
The Downsie dolls strike me as ugly, disturbing and rather sinister. But then Action Man's ripped torso and Barbie's twin bazookas also give me the creeps. It's not the Downsisness that's the problem: it's the dolliness. After all, my younger son has Down's. To be frank, I am reminded of the plans for the defecating doll in Withnail and I: “It's 'orrible, really, but they like that, the little girls.” So maybe they'll like this as well. Or maybe not. I'm not overly bothered.
But the project seems to have a good heart behind it: and believe me, you get to value such things. It's a generous attempt to say that people with Down's syndrome should be included in all aspects of our lives. I don't go for the medium much: but I go for the message all right. The quality of my life depends on it.
Eddie is included, you see. He goes to the mainstream school in the next village, and does all the normal things: and that's the most important thing in the world for him. For me, it's also important that he can be included everywhere we go. A pub lunch; Pizza Express; a café for cake; public transport; beaches; the zoo; local shows: we go to them all. No one turns aside in distaste, or if so, the changes in society - the kind we sneer at as political correctness - inform the turner-aside that the problem is with him, not with Eddie or me. No one has ever told me that I should keep Eddie locked up where he won't upset people, as they did in the old days.
Occasionally he gets it wrong in public: cuts up rough, goes irrational, gets silly, makes a din, requires a bit of interventional parenting. He is a serial cutlery-chucker. We have, then, a need for tolerance. We live in the country and have our regular places to visit: nobody has made us feel unwelcome. And all this comes from a new default mechanism in society: that is to say, the belief that we need to be inclusive rather than exclusive: that people who are different from ourselves still have a right to participate. Eddie's schoolfriends will have a better attitude than their parents: and their parents have all been great.
People with Down's syndrome are people, not syndromes. The more such people we bump into in our daily lives, the less of a big deal it becomes. The Downsie doll is just one more minor symptom of a major change. The doll is 'orrible, but I like it. The thought behind it, anyway.

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