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It's Time to Talk About Wheelchair Barbie

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I’ve been called “Wheelchair Barbie” more than a few times. We share the same sparkly pink wheelchair, blonde hair, and affinity for pink accessories. Putting clothes on me is even kind of like dressing up Barbie — a difficult task with stiff, unbending limbs. I’ve always embraced the nickname. Of all the things people could call me as a wheelchair user, Barbie is hardly something to be mad about.

Wheelchair Barbie is kind of a misnomer, though. The disabled doll is actually one of
Barbie’s countless friends, and her name is Becky. Unfortunately, Becky no longer has a place in Barbie’s world. Last week Julia Franz’s article about the discontinuation of Becky went viral in the disability community. Becky’s demise isn’t simply a function of upgrading toys, it’s directly related to Becky’s wheelchair, and the ways it inconveniences Barbie and her friends.

Franz writes, “Kids and collectors soon discovered that Becky’s wheelchair didn’t fit through the doors of the Barbie Dreamhouse — that pink-swathed epicenter of Barbie’s social world. The chair couldn’t squeeze inside the house’s elevator, either.” After reportedly looking into changing both Barbie and Becky’s accessories, the decision was made to discontinue the doll altogether. Instead of looking for ways to include Becky, it was easier for Barbie to end their friendship.

I’ll be honest. At first, I thought this whole comparison was a little dramatic. It’s a doll… are we reading into this a little too much?

Then I thought of all the ways that I’ve felt like Becky. Turns out, we share more than a monopoly on pink clothes and physical inflexibility. Becky and I both know what it’s like to be an inconvenience in the social scene.

It was fifth grade, and the class was abuzz with plans for the latest birthday this weekend. I was confused — the birthday girl had told me weeks ago she was doing something with just her family this year. On the bus ride home I timidly confronted her. “Well, the reason I didn’t invite you is, we’re going to be playing a lot of games like three-legged races, and I just didn’t think you’d have fun.”

This was the first time I was conscious of being excluded from something because of my cerebral palsy. It wasn’t the last.

I felt like Becky in 8th grade, when the same girls I ate with every day sat at the top of the stairs for lunch one day. “Sorry”, they said, “we felt like sitting here today.”

In high school, when I heard about parties I missed out on over the weekend, kids were quick to say, “Yeah, I figured you weren’t into that kinda thing.”

On my 20th birthday, faced with a flight of stairs leading to a fraternity house, alcohol gave way to what one girl was really thinking, “This would be so much easier if you weren’t here.”

I guess Barbie thought the same thing about Becky.

I don’t want to evoke pity. I don’t expect my friends to move into accessible houses, or change their plans around me. I don’t even think it’s reasonable that Mattel be made to re-do Barbie’s house to accommodate Becky. I don’t think toy companies have an ableist agenda.

I do, however, think this is an opportunity for a conversation around what it really means to be inclusive. How can we do better to include people of all abilities into our plans and into our lives?

For me, so much of the problem stems from assumptions. So many of the incidents could be avoided if people had just asked me whether or not I felt comfortable attending a less-than-accessible event.

Sometimes, I might say yes. In fifth grade, all I really cared about was laughing with my friends and eating cake. Even if I couldn’t participate in every activity, I still would have loved to come to the party.

Sometimes, I might say no. These days, I have a pretty good idea of what I do and don’t like to do. I’d rather sip wine at happy hour than find myself head-level with everyone’s ass at a club.

Sometimes if I want to go to a particularly challenging event, I might ask an aide to come with me so that my friends and I can focus on just having fun.

No matter what my response is, I will always appreciate the invitation. It’s time we put these decisions back in the hands of people with disabilities, and back in the hands of the countless children who have found imaginative and adaptive ways to play with Becky, wheelchair or not.

Mattel, let’s #BringBeckyBack.

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Originally published: April 30, 2017
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