Mattel just unveiled its newest doll, one that has Down syndrome. In its press release, Mattel announced: “Our goal is to enable all children to see themselves in Barbie, while also encouraging children to play with dolls who do not look like themselves.” I applaud this effort to introduce a new doll in their line of Barbies with disabilities; more toys and representations of people with disabilities are needed in our society.
As a person who works daily to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities, I was hesitant to comment on this new doll. I have great respect for what Mattel is doing to foster a more inclusive society by creating dolls that represent a wide range of people with disabilities; other dolls in the company’s diversity line—a wheelchair user and another with visible hearing aids—are fantastic examples of how to help move the inclusion conversation forward and allow children with disabilities to see themselves in these dolls. Furthermore, other children who play with these dolls are likely to be more sensitized to their peers with disabilities because Mattel’s depictions have been accurate and obvious.
In the case of the new Barbie with Down syndrome, it feels as though Mattel was hesitant to depict this doll with the most conspicuous features of Down syndrome. As a result, the construction and depiction of this new doll do not hit its intended mark.
It isn’t my intent to pour cold water on this undertaking. Rather, it is my hope that we use this latest portrayal by Mattel as a learning opportunity for all of us. We can, on the one hand, applaud the effort, and on the other open a dialogue as to how this could have been even better.
Mattel, in consultation with the National Down Syndrome Society, focused on a number of modifications to the standard Barbie doll, including a shorter stature and longer torso; eyes that are slightly slanted in an almond shape; and a pink pendant necklace with three upward chevrons. These are, at best, subtle representations of someone with Down syndrome.
I have worked in the disability arena for almost 25 years. In that time, I have interacted, engaged with and counseled hundreds, if not thousands of individuals with disabilities, many with Down syndrome. I also have family members and close family friends who have children with Down syndrome. I was happy to hear about this new Barbie, hoping it could increase inclusion. But when I first saw it, I didn’t immediately recognize this as a doll representing someone with Down syndrome. I considered I had perhaps missed something, and so I showed a picture of it to numerous professional colleagues. They, too, didn’t notice the features of someone with Down syndrome strongly represented. Only once it is explained that it’s intended to depict someone with this condition are some of these subtleties noticeable.
According to the CDC website, some of the common physical features of Down syndrome include a “flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose, almond shaped eyes, a short neck, small ears, a tongue that tends to stick out of the mouth, tiny white spots on the iris of the eye, small hands and feet, a palmar crease, small pinky fingers, poor muscle tone and shorter in height as children and adults.”
The most recognizable features of Down syndrome to the average person would be the “obvious” physical features the CDC describes: a flattened face, protruding tongue, small hands and feet, and short neck.
Wouldn’t a Barbie doll with a more realistic and obvious depiction of a person with Down syndrome help further the cause of inclusion? Did Mattel shy away from doing this because it thought children with Down syndrome might be offended? Are we afraid a truer depiction will scare other children?
To me, the obvious answers are that a more realistic or obvious depiction would further our collective cause and would not be offensive in any way. And not only would it not frighten other children, but a more apparent depiction would also help sensitize them in greater ways: When they see someone with Down syndrome in their school, on the playground or anywhere else, these physical differences would already be familiar to them.
Another aspect of the new Barbie that many people with or without Down syndrome may not recognize is her bright pink necklace with three chevrons. At first glance, I thought it was a nice accessory; it wasn’t until I saw the “reveal” on “Good Morning America” that I discovered it is meant to symbolize the three copies of the 21st chromosome, characteristic of someone with Down syndrome. Also known as Trisomy 21, the condition occurs when a person has an extra copy of chromosome 21. Is that something we expect children with Down syndrome to know or understand? How about neurotypical children?
Further, no two people are the same, and this is certainly the case with people with Down syndrome. Associated medical issues include heart defects, hearing loss and eye diseases, and are generally, if not always, accompanied by varying degrees of cognitive delays.
Depending on how these delays manifest, many children with Down syndrome might not necessarily see themselves as “different.” For those who do, I struggle to see how they will associate this doll with themselves. For the neurotypical child, the most obvious “difference” in this doll is the orthotics, which is not unique to someone with Down syndrome and not regularly associated with someone with Down syndrome.
Those of us who have had the fortune to interact with someone with Down syndrome understand they are among the best people that society has to offer. We should never generalize about any particular group of people, and certainly, individuals with Down syndrome are individuals and have the same range of emotions as the general public. However, a 2011 study by Harvard University-trained physician Brian K. Skotko shows that individuals with Down syndrome have a higher self-perception of happiness than the general public.
It is hard to imagine getting to know someone with Down syndrome and not walking away with a smile on your face.
As someone who is constantly positively impacted by people with Down syndrome, I would have loved to have seen this doll more accurately represent someone with Down syndrome. It is now 2023, and our society has come a long way in becoming more inclusive and understanding of those with differences.
Avrohom (“Avromie”) Adler, LCSW, is the international director of Yachad (a division of the Orthodox Union), an organization dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities live more independently and participate more fully in society.