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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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