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Culture & Conversation Media

All Hail Barbie in a Wheelchair: Pop Culture Meets Disability Awareness

Robyn Powell

And new emojis depicting people with canes and hearing aids are also on their way.

A teddy bear seated in a wheelchair adorns my desk at work. Made at Build-A-Bear more than a decade ago, this customized disabled bear has followed me through multiple jobs. While most professionals do not keep stuffed toys in their offices, this fuzzy creature is important to me because it is one of the rare instances where my identity as a disabled person is represented by something enjoyed by many in society.

Now, recent announcements that emojis and Barbie dolls with visible disabilities will be released this year has left me and others with disabilities cautiously optimistic. Maybe 2019 is the year disability is finally mainstreamed into society!

Although emojis and Barbies have few apparent similarities, the fact that disability will soon be depicted by both of these popular items is significant—and long overdue. Indeed, the inclusion of disability in popular culture is something I have been hoping for my whole life.

Emojis, considered the “fastest growing language of all time,” are a crucial part of how many of us communicate. Using 2,823 emojis, we can express a range of emotions and discuss everyday objects, the weather, places, and animals. Over the years, there have been efforts to diversify emojis, such as offering various skin tones. But until now, there has only been one emoji that represents the one billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, who have a disability: a blue square with a wheelchair symbol.

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That is finally about to change. Later this year, 59 new emojis will be released, including 13 representing people with disabilities. These new emojis will include people using white canes, service dogs, manual and power wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and a hearing aid. There will also be an emoji of someone using American Sign Language.

The new emojis were part of a March 2018 proposal that Apple sent to the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit that develops international standards for software. These new emojis were developed by Apple in collaboration with national disability organizations, including the National Association of the Deaf, the American Council of the Blind, and the Cerebral Palsy Association.

In another sign of disability becoming part of popular culture, Mattel announced on February 11 that it will be adding two Barbies with disabilities to its Fashionista line. One Barbie will have a prosthetic leg, and the other will use a wheelchair.

While there are other toys with disabilities, they are rare and not usually available in the mainstream market. Barbie, conversely, is well-known and has been around for 60 years. That a long-standing and global brand is recognizing the importance of disability representation is momentous.

The new Barbies are in response to customer requests. “A wheelchair or doll in a wheelchair was one of the most requested items through our consumer hotline. It’s important to us to listen to our consumers,” Kim Culmone, Mattel’s vice president of Barbie Design, told Teen Vogue.

Like Apple, Mattel worked with people with disabilities to ensure that the new Barbies featured accurate representation. In addition to working with a University of California-Los Angeles team to design the wheelchair, Mattel worked with 13-year-old Jordan Reeves, who has a prosthetic arm and co-founded Born Just Right, an organization for families who have children with disabilities.

“I gave the Barbie design team tips about limb differences and prosthetics,” Reeves told Rewire.News via email. “I told them that prosthetics have to come off the doll because prosthetics are kind of just like shoes. They have to be able to come off. A prosthetic-wearing doll isn’t real any other way,” she continued.

For Reeves, having Barbies with disabilities is an essential step toward the full inclusion of people with disabilities. Specifically, she thought these Barbies were important “so there’s more awareness that disabilities exist and [all] kids can see disabilities in toys you find at any store. It’s also really cool for kids with disabilities to see representation in mainstream toys,” she said.

I couldn’t agree more. I was born with arthrogryposis, a physical disability that affects my muscles and joints. I have limited use of my arms and legs, use a power wheelchair, and need assistance with most activities of daily living. Representation matters and, throughout my life, I have been frustrated to see disability absent from most aspects of popular culture.

Indeed, emojis and Barbies are not the only places in society where disability has been grossly underrepresented. According to a recent report by the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, just 2.5 percent of popular movies in 2017 had characters with disabilities in speaking roles. Nearly 70 percent of these characters were male, which is in stark contrast to reality: A 2011 World Health Organization report found that women are more likely than men to have disabilities.

People with disabilities are also significantly underrepresented on television. A recent publication by GLAAD found that only 2.1 percent of characters on broadcast TV have disabilities, a slight increase from last year’s estimate of 1.8 percent. And in 2016, the Ruderman Foundation found that nondisabled actresses and actors played 95 percent of disabled characters.

The extent to which and the way people with disabilities are depicted matters. People with disabilities experience pervasive and substantial discrimination. Compared to our nondisabled peers, we are more likely to be unemployed and living in poverty. People with disabilities are also more likely to experience significant health disparities. Further, people with mental health conditions, especially people of color with disabilities, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and encounter high rates of police brutality. Finally, we are facing a government that is threatening nearly facet of our lives, from incessant attacks on the Americans with Disabilities Act to attempts to take away our health care.

The more that disability is included in everyday popular culture, the more it will be perceived for what it is: “a natural part of the human experience.”

As Reeves told Rewire.News, “When you see disabilities more, then disabilities aren’t a surprise. If you’ve seen disabilities before in toys or your phone or in videos and books, you don’t think it’s different.”

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Family, Human Rights, New media

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