American Girl Responds To Melissa Shang, Who Wants A ‘Girl Of The Year’ Doll With A Disability

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Melissa The Mattel-owned doll-maker American Girl said it is committed to diversity, but it stopped short of committing to a doll with a disability.

After receiving a somewhat generic response from American Girl, a disabled 10-year-old Pennsylvania girl is holding out hope that her favorite doll-maker will listen to her request and release a doll with a disability.

Melissa Shang, who has a form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, launched an online petition last month asking American Girl to release a “Girl of the Year” doll who is in a wheelchair. Each year, the popular brand introduces a new character with her own unique set of challenges. This year, that character is Isabelle, a ballet dancer who has trouble adjusting to a new school.

In a phone interview, Melissa said hearing about Isabelle made her feel left out. “When I saw that the ‘Girl of the Year’ was going to be a dancer, I was really sad,” she said. “And then my sister and I talked about what I wanted, and we decided to do a petition.”

That petition is now one of the fastest-growing campaigns on Change.org, according to a spokeswoman for the website. As of Thursday afternoon, it was signed by more than 15,000 people. Many of the petition’s supporters are commenting to say that they too suffer from disabilities. Melissa said all the attention has made her feel less alone. “So many people signed my petition,” she said. “It made me realize that so many girls are affected by different kinds of physical disabilities.”

Isabelle Isabelle, a ballet dancer, is American Girl's "Girl of the Year" for 2014.

American Girl, a line of 18-inch dolls first released in 1986, is owned by Mattel Inc. (NASDAQ:MAT). Julie Parks, a spokeswoman for the brand, told IBTimes in an email that the company applauds Melissa “for her amazing spirit and positive attitude.” However, she stopped short of committing to a doll with a disability for next year’s “Girl of the Year.” “We receive hundreds of passionate requests to create a variety of dolls and books based on a wide range of circumstances, and we are always considering new ways to enhance our product lines,” she said.

Eva Shang, Melissa’s older sister who helped her with the petition, said she was happy to hear that American Girl is open to the idea, although she admits she is hoping for a more definitive response than the statement issued so far. “We’re really hoping we’ll get to talk to them,” she said. “If we were able to present our case face to face, I think that would help convince them.”

Eva said the underrepresentation of people with disabilities is reflective not just of American Girl but across all media. She said American Girl, which has a reputation for being committed to diversity, is the ideal brand to break down some of those boundaries. Its “Girl of the Year” is a role model for countless girls in Mellissa’s age group. “Obviously everyone wants a girl that reflects them, but we really think that a girl with a disability is different than, say, a girl who plays the xylophone,” Eva said. “It’s really hard for girls without disabilities to understand what it’s like to have a disability.”

Melissa added, for the record, that she thinks American Girl is “really great.” And despite the initial response, she is confident that, one day soon, she will see a “Girl of the Year” whose challenges reflect her own. “I think American Girl is the perfect way for girls to learn what it’s like to face a challenge every day,” she said. “I just want girls with disabilities to really have role models who can go on adventures like the other girls can.”  

Watch Melissa’s video below, and visit her petition to read more.

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