You’re never too old to play with Barbie ― especially when you’ve been waiting 37 years for one you can see yourself in.
Jessica Jewett is a Georgia-based author and artist who was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita and uses a wheelchair. When she learned this week through Instagram that the iconic doll brand is expanding and diversifying its offerings to include a Barbie with a prosthetic limb and a Barbie who uses a wheelchair, she had an emotional reaction.
“It just took me back to being 5, 6, 7 years old, asking my mom and grandma why there aren’t dolls that look like me,” she told HuffPost. “I used to ask all the time why Barbie’s parent company Mattel couldn’t make a wheelchair for the doll.”
It’s a long time coming for Jewett, who wrote on Twitter Tuesday that this was the toy she “needed as a little girl.” Growing up in the ’80s, she has no memory of seeing herself represented in dolls and toys like her friends did.
“I would just start making up my own thing instead, which is probably why I became a writer,” she said. “I ended up having to make up my own stories that had nothing to do with me, because there was nothing like me out there.”
That lack of representation and accessibility followed Jewett into other aspects of her life, as well. At her elementary school, the special education classrooms were in a back room, where she said the teachers were more like babysitters than actual teachers.
“I used to sort of have this feeling from a really young age that I was different, but not understanding why that difference was something to be hidden,” she said. She went from shy kid to child advocate at just 12 years old, when her middle school refused to build an entrance ramp for her to use.
“My mom and I said, ‘You have summer break to fix this building to come up with the law, otherwise we’re coming back with television cameras and the public can decide what you should do,’” she said. “I realized that it worked and made a difference ― I was the first disabled student in my middle school, and the other disabled students who came after me came because I took a stand and said this had to change.”
Accessibility remains a pressing issue in many parts of the U.S. ― which is one reason Jewett was so excited to see that Mattel will now also offer a ramp that is compatible with the doll’s famous DreamHouse set.
It just took me back to being 5, 6, 7 years old, asking my mom and grandma why there aren’t dolls that look like me.Jessica Jewett
“The fact that Barbie actually thought, ‘Hey, we need to bring a ramp into this so kids can put her wheelchair in their DreamHouse’ is extremely important, because it extends the need for accessibility beyond the person ― it extends it to real-life settings through the imagination of a child playing with this toy,” she said. “They’re going to see this ramp and then see it in real life, and understand what it’s for and why it’s important.”
Jewett praised Mattel for doing something she said would have meant “everything” to her as a little girl. And while there is still a long way to go when it comes to representation, Jewett has a few ideas on how to continue advancing this kind of inclusive messaging. It starts, she says, with what we see on television.
“There really needs to be more actors with disabilities in commercials,” she said. “Not children who are able-bodied pretending to have a disability, but children with disabilities. So the kids watching at home will see them and start to normalize our experiences from a very young age. It needs to be visually impactful from a very young age.”
The new Barbie dolls, some of which include features like a new braided hair texture and a greater diversity of body types, will be available in June. To learn more about Jewett, including how she creates beautiful artwork using her mouth, head to her website.