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Dolls with Down syndrome characteristics spur questions

Maureen used to be obsessed with baseball -- and then she had children. After she welcomed her son, Charlie, and his extra chromosome, she discovered her passion for writing about Down syndrome and disability-related issues.

With two...

Do we need Down syndrome dolls?

For centuries, children have played with dolls that continue to take on more detailed, sophisticated appearances. But do “Down syndrome dolls” go too far?
Spotlighting differences
Girl with doll

Even in a down economy, dolls are big business.

In fact, American Girl, known for its customized dolls, sold more than $246 million worth of dolls, books, clothing and accessories in just its first three fiscal quarters in 2012.

As toy companies continue to offer more tailored selections, several now offer “Down syndrome dolls,” or rather, a doll that has the physical characteristics of a child with Down syndrome (Ds).

The idea isn't isolated. After all, American Girl dolls now can be fitted with hearing aids, designed without hair and accessorized with wheelchairs or leg casts.

But is the push to help children find dolls that “look like me” spotlighting differences negatively?

NDSS speaks out

While advocating for individuals with Down syndrome (Ds), the National Down syndrome Society (NDSS) emphasizes “the importance of focusing on similarities versus differences in appearance,” explains Julie Cevallos, the organization’s vice president of marketing.

Products and advertisements can help promote diversity by including “all types of children and adults,” Cevallos says. “We look forward to a day when including people with Down syndrome is more commonplace and isn't such news that it makes the front of People magazine.”

Nice concept, poor execution

“I like the idea of a doll but I have not seen one that is half as cute as my Cooper,” says Larissa, whose son has Ds.

Melissa has biracial children and agrees the concept is sound. “It took years for black dolls and bi-racial dolls to become the norm,” she explains. “Everyone needs something they can relate to.”

Karen isn’t a mom but feels strongly that while — again — the concept is “a wonderful idea... I don't know if this is the right approach… a doll that looks like someone children might meet is more important than a doll that looks like them.”

Sara asks, “Why can't we just buy typical dolls, and if ours happens to have Ds so be it? Dolls… can be whatever our kids' imaginations want them to be.”

Pointing out differences

Larina dismisses the notion the dolls are beneficial. “Those dolls can't raise awareness of anything except the fact that our children have different features… I don't mind explaining to [my daughter] someday that she has different and beautiful features... and that there are not many people with [Ds] so they don't make dolls who have it. That shouldn't crush her for life.”

Sandy’s daughter has Ds. “I am looking forward to the day where my daughter will be looked at the same as any other person and not considered different just by the way she looks. I will never buy such ‘toys’ that highlight differences rather than encouraging similarities (when it comes to disabilities).”

Reality bucks stereotypes

Terri shares a story of good intentions backfiring.

When her daughter (who has Ds) was about a year old, her mother-in-law bought her a Cabbage Patch Kid. “She searched high and low for one with glasses because she knew that many kids with Ds have glasses. Well, guess what, [my daughter] is almost eight and still no glasses... I am not in favor of going for the stereotype doll.”

One company's take

The Pattycake Doll Company offers a variety of dolls with diverse ethnicities and those with special needs, from wheelchairs and crutches to characteristics of children with Down syndrome.

The company has received criticism for its focus on providing dolls with spotlighted, diverse characteristics.

In an open letter to customers, the Pattycake Doll Company wrote, “It seems as we move further into the 21st century, that it becomes harder and harder to stay 'politically correct.' … Very rarely, we get a complaint. The doll is not 'Asian' enough… The description is 'demeaning,' 'ignorant' or both! People 'will be,' or already are 'offended' by our copy, our descriptions etc.

The company admonishes those critics: “Please; these are sacks of cloth with stuffing inside them. They are toys for children, not our personal opinions of what real children look like… We have never received a doll back from a child; nor have we received one back from a parent with the reason being 'my child didn't like your doll.'

“You see, children love dolls unconditionally. It's the adults who quibble.”

More about special needs

Online resources for children with special needs
Birth announcements for children with special needs
How to talk to your child’s peers about Down syndrome

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