Friday, April 4, 2014

Access Denied: The Curious Case of the Becky Doll As a Misfit Toy and Its Real-Life Implications

Becky Doll Article

I mentioned not long ago in a previous post that children with disabilities have few options when they are seeking toys that look like them. This seems like a silly thing to be worried about, but think about it. The products available on the market reflect what we as a culture find important. For underrepresented groups who may not be visible to many, the images on the market are often the sole exposure that some have to such groups. When certain identities are excluded from something as simple as the toy business, it’s a reflection that they are excluded from society, and deemed unworthy to be made visible.
Furthermore, toys are for children, and children’s minds are those that can still be shaped. When we have no dolls or other toys with disabilities, our message to them is implicit but undeniable: people with disabilities don’t matter, or at least not enough to be brought to your attention. This was the case with Becky, Barbie’s friend with a manual wheelchair. Becky, formally called “Share a Smile Becky” was selling well when she was released in 1997. Then, a 17-year-old girl with cerebral palsy pointed out that the “Barbie Dream House” was not accessible to Becky. Instead of redesigning the house to help accommodate her, Mattel made a choice that is the embodiment of the real-life struggle for people with disabilities. Becky could not fit into the house or many of the other Barbie accessories such as the car. But no “ADA compliant dream house” followed. No car with a lift hit the shelves. Becky was simply discontinued.
That choice is reveals the unsettling truth that even in the doll world, people frequently can’t be bothered to make structures accessible. This thinking blames the disabled person for being different, for not fitting the expected mold for the “normal body”. The real problem lies in the fact that the structure was designed to accommodate one type of person, when in reality, people are from many varying paths of life. It is troubling that even as the increased consciousness about diversity reaches the media, people with disabilities seem on the outskirts of even the diversity discussion. If Mattel did not care to create a world where Becky could remain part of the product line, what does that tell children about the need to be accommodating in the real world? Children who play with toys eventually become adults who build homes, write laws, draft policy, and hire employees. When we don’t give a disabled doll a place in their imagination, our hopes of them giving a place to disabled people in their real world sharply decline. The reality is that too many people with disabilities face discrimination in housing and public accommodations. The barriers they face look eerily similar to Becky’s, and the lack of access to “the dream house” becomes a sick metaphor for the continued prevalence of ableism in the world.
The case of the disabled toy that was not worth the effort to accommodate translates into the adult attitude that inclusion should not be valued. This attitude shifts responsibility for access away from society and makes disabled people, not their second-class status, the problem. If there is a place to start with changing hearts and minds, that place is with our children, who have the power to unlock a future that is better, brighter, and more loving for all people. If people with disabilities belong on their TVs, in their stories, and reflected in their toys, they learn that people with disabilities belong in their communities. The issues are much bigger than the Becky doll, but finding a place for her in games of pretend and Barbie tea parties is a start to creating true equality.

People with disabilities are real. We are here, and we are not going away. Becky was discontinued, and that should make you think about how much value we place on the real-life people Becky represents. I was the child, and I am the adult, for whom Becky was rendered. I am a person, and my identity cannot and should not be discontinued. Disability rights matter, and they truly exist when they are embedded in our cultural practices. My rights matter, and when you take all that reflects me out of the public consciousness, you effectively take me “off the shelf”. Think about that, and change your attitude, because unlike Becky, I will not accept a quiet exit.


  1. Excellent post... I didn't have a Becky until fairly recently, as she wasn't sold in the UK, but I'm sad to hear she was discontinued.

    I tended to use my imagination in relation to my disabled dolls - in particular the wheelchair users (not barbies, but playmobil etc) had levitating chairs. Even 'normal' barbies were actually disabled, as they couldn't stand up without help, and there were some dolls with limb loss or joint problems.

    I'm not sure whether non-disabled children's imaginations would necessarily stretch that far, though, and magic accommodations aren't realistic, although they were good for inclusion in my imaginary world, so an opportunity was definitely missed to create accessible products...

    1. Thank you for writing. It is true that a nondisabled child may not have his or her imagination stretch that far, but representation is still important and I think seeing a doll with a disability would at least create some visibility for our community and put us on the radar as a kind of "normal"

  2. Thank you for writing this! Even though you were speaking about physical structures, I've encountered the same attitude many times as a developer when pushing for web accessibility, too. Including everyone is important! When we don't make room for people with disabilities to participate, everyone loses.