Basking in differences

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One day, Hannah told her mother something that puzzled and worried her infinitely.

“There are no dolls like me in here. No dolls had surgery. They are all not like me,” she said, leafing through a catalogue of dolls that somewhat resembled her sisters, but none of them seemed to have a likeness to herself.

Hannah has Down syndrome, and had open heart surgery only a month after she turned one – a thankfully successful surgery that only left a scar behind. Eight years later, at nine years old, she noticed dolls didn’t have any scars like hers or looked like her at all. She had become self-conscious about that mark that no one else seemed to have. The dolls her sisters played with kind of looked like them so why couldn’t she have a doll that kind of looked like her?

The misrepresentation of body types and ethnicities of dolls is apparent in any toy store you stop by to browse. But what most people won’t notice is that kids with disabilities won’t find any dolls they can relate to, at all. And if women in general already have problems with their self-image, how can we say the toy market is being fair to Hannah?

“Kids with disabilities are underrepresented in the toy market.  The more I looked, the more frustrated I became,” said Hannah’s mother Connie Roe Feda. “When I see my child, any of my six children, actually, I see how similar they are but I marvel at their extraordinary differences.  It’s the differences in people that make them beautiful.”

But this beauty, this deeper and much more important beauty seems to be missing from society, obscured by the generalized idea of ‘perfect’ human beings.

“In some sense, all dolls look alike, but a child chooses a doll because of its differences,” explained Connie. “My daughter should have the opportunity to celebrate her differences.   I also think that the dolls needed to be made because kids naturally embrace differences and there is no better way to introduce disabilities to children than in the form of something that they naturally love.”

This belief of the positive power of differences led Connie to start the ‘Dolls for Downs’ project. She wanted to design and produce dolls that looked like Hannah and thousands of other Down syndrome patients. With a team composed of her family – kids, husband and sister, Connie made a Kickstarter page to fund her project. She asked for a humble sum of $3,000 but she has already managed to raise more than double her initial pledge.

“The response from the public has been generally favorable,” she tells me. “There are some people who don’t quite understand my philosophy or don’t agree with it, but that is to be expected with any idea. I have found that there are a lot of parents, just like me, who looked for a very long time for a doll that was beautiful and just happened to have Down syndrome.”

Though the public’s support has been a great incentive, Connie’s main target was to make her daughter happy.

“My target wasn’t very much, only $3,000 for accessory production. We had many thousands more in pre-orders from the web site. That being said, the only critic I sought to please, I already have.  Hannah loves her.”

Connie worked with several professionals and therapists to design the doll. One of the contributors was Tatyanna Fox, an occupational therapist, who helped Connie and her family come up with the concept and the project. Since unveiling her plans, Connie has also gotten the approval of therapists across the world. The encouragement just goes to show how the underrepresentation is a constant in the toy market – all that was necessary was for Hannah to point at it.

Connie says it has been a battle, but that she and her family are determined to always look forward.

She said: “Each individual aspect of this process has presented its own challenges from designing, adapting and securing funding, to overcoming momentary periods of self-doubt.  I have a strong personal faith and I believe that this is my ministry, my contribution toward making the world a friendlier place to live.

“Until all the dolls are in the hands of all the children that need them, I am sure the challenges will continue.  What is more important is that we continue to move forward.”

Connie reveals that there are other dolls that are taking shape and will be launched in the future. But for now, ‘Dolls for Downs’ can be bought on the project’s website.

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Photo courtesy of Connie Roe Feda & Dolls for Downs.

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