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Parents' fury at 'Down's Syndrome dolls'

Parents' fury at 'Down's Syndrome dolls' designed to help children deal with disability

Lorejn Fišer
7. juli 2008.

At a distance, it may seem to be an ordinary, if a little old-fashioned, doll. But look up close and you will see that it is, in fact, quite unusual.

The protruding tongue, almond-shaped eyes, flattened nose and low ears all make it very different to most shop-bought toys. So do the small mouth, short fingers and the horizontal crease across the palm of the hands.

This is a Down’s syndrome doll which has been designed with the characteristics of children born with the condition.

It’s one of an increasingly popular — but hugely controversial — range of dolls with different disabilities produced to give youngsters with health problems a toy with which they can identify.

The manufacturers claim such dolls, which are finding a growing market in Britain, help ‘normalise’ conditions like Down’s syndrome so young sufferers don’t feel so different from their friends. They even say such dolls may help make disabled people more accepted by society.

Controversial: Disabled dolls, like this one with Down's syndrome, are popular

Children undergoing cancer treatment can get ‘chemo’ dolls which are bald and come complete with headscarves. Others are available with hearing aids, glasses, guide dogs, wheelchairs, crutches and leg braces.

Many parents of disabled children have welcomed the dolls as a realistic alternative to the physical perfection of the Baby Annabells already on the market.

Others, however, dismiss them as a sick joke. In fact, their detractors believe they only emphasise a disabled child’s differences to their able-bodied friends.

Civil servant Sue Farren, from Durham, whose daughter Rebecca has cerebral palsy and has to use a wheelchair, is horrified by the very idea. She says: ‘To me, creating disabled dolls like these and giving them to a child pigeon-holes the disabled and turns them into something akin to a freak show. It seems as if the disability is being highlighted here, whereas most disabled kids just want to blend in and be accepted for who they are — Rebecca doesn’t even like her disability being referred to.

‘Also, it worries me that able-bodied children might treat these dolls as a figure of fun. Life is difficult enough as a disabled child, as Rebecca will testify, without this unwelcome attention.’

Her daughter was 13 months’ old when doctors diagnosed cerebral palsy, but it hasn’t held her back. Sue, 50, says: ‘Rebecca is 14 now — a very bright girl who is in mainstream school, taking eight GCSEs, and is predicted to do well and hopefully go on to university. She likes to feel there is very little she cannot do, and I think that to have given her a doll when she was younger which highlighted her disability could have knocked her confidence.

Inspiration: Disabled children feel more part of society, the makers claim

‘Growing up with her disability was hard work — even going to stay at a friend’s house was difficult, as she needs help in a home which isn’t adapted for the purpose, as ours is.

‘Her aim is to lead a fully independent life, and I think to have given her a doll in a wheelchair would only have reinforced a painful self-image.’

Social worker Alison Wellemin’s daughter Sarah is one of the 60,000 people living in the UK with Down’s syndrome.Alison, 51, from North London, has huge doubts about the benefits of disabled toys. ‘When Sarah was six, her mainstream primary school bought a Down’s syndrome doll with the best of intentions,’ she says. ‘But I thought it was horrible and even overheard a teacher referring to it as “peculiar”.

‘Far from educating others about children with Down’s syndrome, these dolls single children like Sarah out and stereotype them just because they have the condition. They are totally one-dimensional — they can’t show that a child with Down’s syndrome can be funny, bright and articulate.

'Terrifying': One parent said the dolls only serve to 'single out' disability

SARAH is now 16. Her mother says: ‘She has just sat four GCSEs, and recently enjoyed their end-of-year school prom on a boat on the Thames. She didn’t gain such acceptance through having unrealistic props like Down’s syndrome dolls. Her friends treat Sarah as just another person because she’s always integrated with other children. ‘Integration is the key to normalising Down’s syndrome rather than drawing unnecessary attention to it through dolls.’

But there’s no doubt there is a growing demand for them. When Mattel launched Becky, a friend of Barbie, in a bright pink wheelchair, it sold out in a fortnight.

East Sussex-based company also saw the potential for catering for overlooked minority groups. They’ve launched ranges of black and Asian dolls as well as ones wearing hearing aids, glasses and leg braces with accompanying guide dogs and wheelchairs.

Until now, dolls with Down’s syndrome have not been made in the UK and have only been available over the internet. That seems likely to change.

Donna Moore, from South Carolina, set up 12 years ago and is currently in talks with British stores to stock her products. As a former special needs teacher, she says she felt there was a real need for them. ‘Children with Down’s syndrome didn’t have anything to identify with. They carry around baby dolls that don’t look anything like them.

‘The children realise they are not the same and they want something to identify with, like all children.’ WHEN teaching, Donna, who has three sons, became friends with a young boy called Tim, now 24, who has Down’s syndrome. He helped inspire her.

Education: Many experts believe dolls like this can help all children learn

‘When he came to stay with us, he had an ugly little girl’s doll, so I told him I was making him a new one,’ she says. ‘I visited manufacturers and found an artist. I took him pictures of children with Down’s syndrome I knew and we worked on them until we got it right.’

Each of her £90 dolls has the 13 indications of the condition, such as small ears and a flattened nose, as well as a mark on the chest to indicate the scars of the heart surgery most Down’s syndrome sufferers undergo as they are often born with defects. Donna, who runs her company as a not-for-profit charity, denies her dolls harm rather than help disabled children. ‘I can count the negative comments I’ve had on one hand,’ she says. ‘Otherwise it’s been overwhelming approval.

‘For a child, seeing themselves and having something they can identify with is so important. Our society today is hung up on perfection and when a child with Down’s syndrome picks up a regular doll, they don’t see themselves. I’ve heard so many people say “They don’t know the difference”, but they do. We are not trying to promote the difference, we are trying to promote their beauty and let them know they may have different features, but inside they are still the same. They have the same hopes and dreams.’

Her dolls aren’t just bought for children, though. ‘I’ve sold to parents who have lost children and they say it’s a reminder of what their child was like. That’s wonderful. Schools, hospitals and universities have also bought them and I think this will help educate children. They say ignorance is bliss, but the more we teach about Down’s syndrome, the more receptive and understanding children will be towards others with the condition.’

Maria Campas, from Muswell Hill, London, couldn’t agree more. She was initially distraught when, eight years ago, her daughter Victoria was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, just minutes after being born. But later Maria and her husband Richard Davis, both photographers, vowed to end the stigma attached to the condition and set up the London branch of the Down’s Syndrome Association.

She says: ‘Two years ago on a trip to Brazil, I came across a Down’s syndrome doll and bought it for Victoria. She loved her other dolls at home but I thought having a doll that looked just like her would make her realise that she wasn’t so different after all. She loves the doll. She’s called her Clara and she always plays with her as well as her normal dolls.’

Maria believes such toys should be in the play areas of schools and hospitals to help normalise the condition and challenge people’s perception of it. She says: ‘We had a naive perception early on that children with Down’s didn’t develop or walk properly and didn’t look clean and fresh. It’s just not the case. Victoria’s in mainstream school, she goes to ballet classes and gymnastics and although she’s a bit slower to learn than the other kids, she’s thriving. But I strongly feel that introducing the disability dolls into lots of places would make a huge difference to how society accepts those with Down’s syndrome. If they were as used to seeing such dolls, perhaps people wouldn’t be so shocked when they encounter a child like Victoria. Perhaps they wouldn’t stare so much in the street. They need to understand that just because they look different, Down’s syndrome kids can communicate and play like any other child and many of them do really well at school and in life now.’

Carol Boys, chief executive of the Down’s Syndrome Association, also believes they can be positive, but warns buyers to be careful as the ranges vary in quality and accuracy.

‘Anything that helps to “normalise” Down’s syndrome and promote inclusivity has to be a good thing,’ she says. ‘If the Down’s syndrome dolls give joy to those with the condition and their siblings, we fully support them.’

But not everyone agrees. There have been so many offensive comments posted on Helga Parks’ down website, she has been forced to post a disclaimer on it. Helga sells around 2,000 dolls a year at £25 each as far afield as the UK, Australia and Saudi Arabia. Her new venture, Chemo Friends, are hairless dolls with a catheter port for children undergoing cancer treatment.

‘This just reeks of a bad joke,’ says one comment on the website.

Emma Moorcroft, from Abbots Langley, Herts, thought the same thing when she first saw the dolls. The 31-year-old’s daughter Sian, five, suffers from a rare condition called intermediate (Type II) spinal muscular atrophy, and will never walk because she does not have enough muscle. As well as being concerned that the toys emphasise her daughter’s difference from other children, she was also concerned with their appearance.

Emma says: ‘ Sian loves her toys, so when I first heard about a disability doll I thought it was a great idea. I imagined they would be trendy little dolls, like her Barbies, only perhaps with a fantastic snazzy pink wheelchair. But when I actually saw them I was shocked by how terrifying they look. In fact, they are so offensive they are the last thing I would actually give her to play with. They look so abnormal — not at all appealing, pretty or trendy. Sian is already very image-conscious and loves wearing fashionable clothes. But these dolls are ugly with old-fashioned clothes, so Sian wouldn’t relate to that at all. Instead, they would single her out as different and make her disability stand out more than it does already.’

Sara Kelsoe, 23, has similar concerns but believes if the dolls were brought up to date, they could work. Her son Cieran, three, contracted meningitis two years ago and had to have both his legs and some fingers amputated.

‘These dolls look disturbing and somewhat sinister,’ says Sara, from Northwich, Cheshire. ‘But it would be fantastic if Action Man could take his legs off at night when he went to bed and put them on the next morning ready to conquer the world. That is the reality of Cieran’s life — he wears prosthetic legs but like many boys, he dreams of fighting baddies and playing football. It would be a great way of telling him that despite having no legs, there is nothing he won’t be able to do.’

So are these ‘disabled dolls’ a force for good, or well-intentioned folly? It’s a question which bitterly divides thousands of parents of disabled children — and as they become more widely available, the controversy will only grow.


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