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Why Barbie’s wheelchair is part of a bigger challenge

12:00am | & Lifestyle

One of the biggest obstacles facing people with a physical disability is the social stigma that can be attached to it, but thankfully times are changing.

Not long ago, it was only a small number of campaigners and charities fighting the stigma and prejudice attached to physical disability, but at last that fight is starting to attract some of society’s big hitters.

Last year, toy making giant Mattel introduced dolls with disabilities to its bestselling Barbie doll range. Crucially, this wasn’t Mattel ‘pushing an agenda’, but instead reacting to consumer demand. Requests for a realistic wheelchair which Barbie could use were among the highest from young people who play with the company’s dolls.

As well as the wheelchair – realistically modelled on those used by people with permanent physical disabilities – Mattel introduced a Barbie doll with a prosthetic leg. Its designers worked with 12-year-old Jordan Reeves, who has a prosthetic arm, to understand why Barbie’s prosthetic leg needed to be removable for a more realistic experience.

Barbie dolls are now available with a wide range of skin tones, body types, eye colours and hairstyles, to better reflect the real world. It was also significant that the introduction of dolls with disabilities came together with several other new dolls in Barbie’s existing and diverse ‘Fashionistas’ line. In other words, the company didn’t release dolls with disabilities separately, but as part of a wider group, and there’s something to learn from that.

Kim Culmore, Mattel’s global head of design for Barbie, said: “For 60 years, Barbie has been a reflection of culture and fashion and that is key to the brand’s continued relevance. Now our Barbie line will include dolls reflecting physical disabilities in order to better represent the people and the world kids see around them. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is a critical component of our design process and we’re proud that today’s kids will know a different image and experience of the brand.”

It touches on a fundamental point – that reducing stigma and prejudice around physical disability is a generational thing. “Today’s kids” are tomorrow’s adults and if they can understand early that being ‘disabled’ is really just being ‘differently abled’, then we’re finally getting ahead of the game.

Fortunately, Mattel isn’t alone among industries doing their bit to fight stigma around disability and empower coming generations to absorb more enlightened attitudes as their ‘norm’. Legislation has made it harder to discriminate on the grounds of disability, but forward-thinking organisations haven’t waited to be forced into compliance; they’ve taken positive steps to become champions of diversity.

Perhaps the world of sport has been most influential in highlighting what people with disabilities can achieve. The Paralympic Games is a global showcase for athletes with physical or intellectual differences, while many other international sporting events now routinely include categories featuring differently-abled athletes. There’s no doubt that ‘paralympic’ sport has changed people’s perceptions of ‘disability’, and continues to do so.

Meanwhile, the media has become more accepting and embracing of disability, helping reduce the stigma around it. People with physical disabilities feature more prominently and frequently on our TV and cinema screens in drama, factual programming and advertising. In some cases, their disability brings a particular insight and expertise to their role, such as the BBC’s disability correspondent Nikki Fox, who herself has muscular dystrophy and uses a mobility scooter to get around.

But in many more cases their disability is irrelevant to their role; it neither enhances their performance nor detracts from it, but is just there to be accepted as part of who they are. Even the world of modelling, which once focussed on the quest for supposedly ‘perfect people’, now embraces a much more representative and realistic cross-section of humanity, including people with disabilities. At the very least it makes disability part of the conversation, opening the opportunity for a more enlightened view without stigma or prejudice.

Mattel’s decision to introduce a Barbie with physical disabilities still attracted international news attention. There will hopefully come a day when ‘disability’ is so much part of the accepted ‘norm’ that we would just shrug and ask: “So what?”.

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