Ever since Barbie and her reality-defying curves stepped into the playhouse, parents have complained that dolls promote an unattainable image of beauty. It's a particularly piquant point for Lexington, South Carolina mother Mary Ann Perry, whose 23-year-old daughter Valerie lives with Down Syndrome. "Dolls represent real people in the imagination of a young person," Perry says. "I don't want Valerie to think she has to be conventionally beautiful to be loved." So when Valerie asked for a doll at Christmas, her mother bypassed buxom Barbie and purchased Elizabeth (retail price: $175) from S.C.-based retailer Downi Creations. Featuring 13 physical characteristics of Down Syndrome, including almond-shaped eyes, low-set ears, a horizontal crease in her palms and a slightly protruding tongue. Elizabeth, says Perry, is "different but beautiful at the same time." (See pictures of Barbie's 50 years.)
She's also one of a new breed of dolls targeted at special-needs kids. Parents in the U.S. and Europe are snapping up Down Syndrome dolls, blind babies, paraplegic dolls in wheelchairs and dolls wearing scarves as if undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. "There's a therapeutic impact," says Helga Parks, who sells more than 2,000 Down Syndrome and Chemo Friends a year through her online Helga's European Specialty Toys. Parks believes her products boost a child's self-esteem by normalizing their condition, and foster understanding among peers: "They take away the fear and sense of alienation for both parties."
While toy sales have been hit by the downturn, special-needs dolls are doing well. Sales at Downi Creations remained steady in 2008, while Kids Like Me, a U.K. retailer, sold 25% more dolls last year than in 2007. Among its hottest items are the Disability Set which comes with two dolls, a guide dog, dark glasses and leg braces; and Tilley, who uses an electric wheelchair. "She's jazzy, she's modern, she's now," says company director Emmanuel Blackman.
Or is she? Special-needs dolls, and Down Syndrome dolls in particular, have come in for criticism from parents who believe they pigeonhole their children and rely on stereotypes. "It's a scary image for a lot of families," says Sheila Hebein, the executive director of the Chicago-based National Association for Down Syndrome. "They're highlighting differences that do not exist in all of our children. Certainly most do not have their tongues hanging out." In fact, she says, many work hard in therapy to improve muscle tone so they can better control their mouths. (Dollmaker Parks offers a nonprotruding option.)
Annette Hames, a British psychologist and an expert on how children conceive disability, says that anyone, special needs or not, would struggle to identify with these "odd-looking" dolls. Besides, she says, "Down Syndrome isn't about what you look like. It's about what you can and cannot do."
Despite such criticism, dollmakers remain unfazed. Peter Laudin, owner of the New York-based Pattycake Doll Company, says offended parents bring their own prejudices to the dolls, perhaps because of their personal difficulty accepting a child's situation. "Nothing we respond with satisfies their hurt," he says. But for kids who receive the dolls, that's beside the point. "Children love all dolls unconditionally whether it's special needs or not," Laudin says. Retailers hope adults share that openness, too.