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Box Ticking exercise: Non-disabled people will never get the importance of disabled Barbies

Box-Ticking Exercise is a monthly(-ish) column by Melissa Parker in which she dissects ableism and the portrayal of disability in tv, film and media. Being M, this is of course all done with her pen as a scalpel.

It was a moment of catharsis in an aisle filled with garish colours. An emotional pull, a toy that looked a little like me—a Barbie in a wheelchair—in plastic flesh, my eyes filled with tears —I could almost see my once chubby little fingers reaching for it.  

It wasn’t until days later that I faced a jarring reality that often hits home profoundly and unexpectedly—a friend I told about this little piece of plastic wish fulfilment looked utterly unmoved. She expressed confusion about such an emotional response.  

Non-disabled people can never fully understand it — never fully get it.  

They are the standard; the impossibly thin blonde looked just enough like them. They didn’t have to mush together, remove parts or create haphazard DIY mobility aids forged out of household objects to see themselves more fully represented. They didn’t have to learn that their body was fundamentally not quite right.  

I remember being taken to a toy store as a child — an enchanting experience children remember for the rest of their lives. For disabled children, it’s where self-doubt and self-recrimination can begin.  

On top of internalising messages about cartoonish and autonomically unattainable bodies — perfectly symmetrical faces, pert noses and flawless skin — the early lessons of ableism and racism also begin to seep.  

At least we are beginning to break down ideas about beauty, skin tone, body shapes, hair types and disabilities.  

As Hollie-Anne Brooks states: “As a plus size woman, I was never represented in dolls growing up, but now, as an adult, I had all these options. It helped me figure out that I was absolutely perfect the way I am, and I hope future toys do that for other children too.”  

Shalida A. Askanazi narrates her experience: “I was so happy to see it, I actually cried. Growing up, there was a wheelchair Barbie, but I only ever remember her being white.”  

She points out that disabled black children and adults more deeply experience the problem, “people who are disabled have such a hard time seeing themselves already, but it’s even harder when you’re black.”  

She conveys the emotions many disabled children internalise from their earliest interactions, ingrained within their earliest memories. “Not seeing myself in toys as a child definitely left me with low self-esteem. I always felt like I was in the zoo from people staring but also ignored by the lack of representation.”  

For Shalida, one way of healing her “inner child” was buying the stuff she couldn’t afford as a child or that didn’t exist. “There’s no age limit on toys. That person isn’t disabled, so they can’t relate to not having a doll that looks like them. For us, it’s a huge deal and rightfully so.”  

Barbie may be dismissed as a relic of a different age, but she remains an iconic children’s toy reflecting many different generations. Thus, she is a mirror of us over time — even as that mirror has reflected some uneasy truths.  

These toys — handled with love and rough hands by their young owners are a start. A disabled Barbie on a shelf is an imperfect beginning. Disabled children need these normalised formative experiences to see themselves fully fleshed out and understand their history.  

It’s a method of introducing their cultural heritage, a pride in their disabled bodies. They should symbolise a new time when disabled children, even in their earliest moments, don’t learn the half-truths of history.  

This means reading more books, being open to discussing complex topics and using age-appropriate language to discuss ableism. In addition, there must continue to be a conscious effort to include representation and diversity in anything offered to all our children.  

As Hollie-Anne mentions about her understanding of disability history, “I knew nothing, and it was only when I became disabled in my 20s that I started to understand. I got bought a wheelchair Barbie, I think, by my mum, not long after I became a wheelchair user, and it helped me unpick so much.”  

The experience has encouraged her to think about her future children and how they will learn about disabilities — through their earliest interactions with toys.  

From the “cripple Suffragette” to the wheelchair user Black Panther, disability history is so often neglected. Disabled children have been taught, passively or by design in our schools, that history was made solely by the non-disabled and that every right we ever gained was not taken by force, crafted by a disabled hand, but bestowed on us by non-disabled pity.  

Non-disabled people don’t understand it because they have seen themselves fully reflected in every aspect of life.    

They will never fully get it—will never truly understand.

But that’s because it’s been about them—their standard, their reflection—for so long, and we need to build the same foundations for disabled children.

These Barbies are little pieces of plastic wish fulfilment — an imperfect beginning, but the beginning that’s so important in shaping how disabled kids see themselves.

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Box-Ticking Exercise Columns opinion

Christina Applegate and the Power of Disabled Hollywood Stars

Christina Applegate has rarely been off our screens throughout the different eras of her life and ours. After emerging in commercials and a soap opera as a child, she played a teenager on the successful and long-running American sitcom Married with Children. Then, she won an Emmy for her guest appearance on Friends. Other starring roles have included the Anchorman films.  

Over several years, as she recounts it, the tingling and numbness she was experiencing worsened. Finally, she was diagnosed during filming for another successful TV show, Dead to Me, that captured another era of life. She had Multiple Sclerosis.   

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Why do Disabled People Have to be Tiny Tims at Christmas?

Charles Dickens introduced the young Tim Cratchit to the world generations ago. Ever since, the character has been an emblem of A Christmas Carol.

Whether humans, cartoons, Muppets or a single puppet in a cast of non-disabled actors, they all have one tie that binds them — they are the sickly but sanguine child whose plight helps convert miserly, seemingly non-disabled Ebenezer Scrooge.    

There is a dimension of perceived honesty and truth to that description that disabled people are still wrangling with so many years later — the plight that helped to improve Scrooge.    

Dickens was the author of a disabled character whose sole purpose was to be an object of pity and to beg for goodwill. 

A character that, in his time, would have been an honest representation of the place, so many disabled people held. But we can’t claim there has been a radical revision in attitudes or ideals across the eras — they simply lie underneath an increasingly worn veneer of respectability.     

Tiny Tim doesn’t develop from a sickly young boy to a frail young man to a middle-aged destitute beggar. Rather, little Tim exists at one point in his life.  

He is the idealised Dickensian child — a staple of the Victorian era. But his modern twin hasn’t altered in the collective public consciousness. So, in whichever period, in whichever form, we see Tiny Tim. We know that we, as disabled people, are tied to him, our throwback twin — but we grew up.  

His presence is still felt in every report, every charitable piece edited just so – sickly but sanguine – to warm the hearts of the non-disabled. 

His father, Bob Cratchit, recounts Tim’s words. “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cr*pple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made l*me beggars walk, and blind men see.” 

No significant change or development has occurred since these words were committed to the page. Disabled children are still being used as props and mined mercilessly for their weight in inspiration porn.  

As a commonplace Victorian character, Bob continuously moralises his son’s death and disability. 

Yet, the sentiment expressed in this passage feels thoroughly modern — this is still how disabled children are represented — until age transforms them into parasites. 

“I know my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child, we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”  

 In the modern world, Tiny Tim would be excellent fodder for a festive charity advert as a voice-over narrated his tale. His trauma would be reworked neatly with melancholic though stirring music. 

Or he might materialise on breakfast television to be dubbed inspiring — and patted on the head dismissively. Of course, there would also be a place for him, wrapped in a Christmas jumper at the end of any bland national news bulletin.  

He doesn’t develop from a sickly young man to a middle-aged destitute beggar. But he walks with a crutch and looks frail in both productions and illustrations.

However, know from bitter experience that Tiny Tim would transform into an adult who might be labelled a scrounger — a liar, a fraudster for daring to be both disabled and an adult. 

Those images are seemingly independent yet entangled, most disabled people have experienced a shift when they are no longer perceived as worthy of protection.   

Before his intervention takes effect, Scrooge quips that government-funded institutions should be sufficient to help impoverished and disabled people.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him the reality: they are grave places and nowhere near enough — not funded well enough or given the proper support. 

The reality is that Tiny Tim would age out of societal sympathy. The divide between who we are and who they want us to be is never more evident than at Christmas. He would be a victim of the benefit scrounger rhetoric, which affects all disabled people’s lives.   

Suppose the adult Tiny Tim lived in modern times. In that circumstance, he might receive the Christmas bonus from the DWP but not in line with inflation.

Not without having to endure some non-disabled pre-conversion Ebenezer Scrooge-style rants, which speak longingly of ripping us back to some form of an idealised Victorian era. 

He might have to beg for help to fund equipment once he outgrew his crutch and be told he was lying about his disability across the media. 

In column inches, tweets and on the street – language is chosen more carefully and insidiously now than Charles Dickens’ work conveys. Still, it’s no less ableist and regressive.  

Positively Dickensian? Positively modern. It reflects the phrasing and sentiment seeping into some newspapers, mangled tweets, and the warped observations of media commentators. 

It might be pleasant for them to remember on Christmas Day that we are not here to be puppets or Muppets in Scrooge’s redemption arc — or their warped Dickensian fantasies.   

Disabled people deserve to exist outside of how non-disabled wish us to appear at Christmas and all year round – god bless us everyone!

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Box-Ticking Exercise: Children in Need Shaped me, but I Wish it Hadn’t

Box-Ticking Exercise is the new monthly(-ish) column by Melissa Parker in which she dissects ableism and the portrayal of disability in tv, film and media. Being M, this is of course all done with her pen as a scalpel.

The silence pulls you in at the moment the camera lingers on a distressed child. Then images of disabled children in despair are artfully, soullessly, woven and twisted around the generically insincere Coldplay song “Fix You”, breaking the accidental, fleeting moment of compassion. 

This is Children in Need, the yearly telethon for disabled children.   

all Box-Ticking Exercise Columns opinion

Box-Ticking Exercise: Ellie Simmonds’ Inclusion on Strictly is Hard Fought

Box-Ticking Exercise is the new monthly(-ish) column by Melissa Parker in which she dissects ableism and the portrayal of disability in tv film and media. Being M, this is of course all done with her pen as a scalpel.

Columnist Allison Pearson’s piece about the new series of Strictly Come Dancing expresses an often loud, profoundly entrenched privilege – the right to spew bile mindlessly and without consequence.

“From mis-matched same-sex couples to the show’s first contestant with dwarfism, it’s clear producers value ‘inclusion’ over entertainment.”  

She persists elsewhere in the piece, “but fans I have spoken to already worry our much-loved dance competition is turning into a box-ticking exercise.”  

In a world where disabled people have been hidden away for so long, our equality will always feel like their oppression.