Incapacity Activists Slam Mattel’s Helen Keller Barbie Doll

Mattel, the maker of Barbie, released its Helen Keller doll on Tuesday as part of its Inspiring Women series. But proponents say Barbie’s Helen Keller doll has symmetrical eyes that don’t accurately reflect Keller’s disability.

“A doll for sighted children by sighted people who imagine what blind people are,” commented one user. “Oops.”

Barbie’s Inspiring Women franchise includes historical heroes like Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, and Susan B. Anthony.

Keller, who went blind and deaf from illness at the age of nine months, was a disability rights attorney. When she was around 30 years old, her eyes were removed and replaced with glass prostheses. Keller had unilateral proptosis, which is the protrusion of one eye, resulting in asymmetrical-looking eyes. It has often been photographed from the side to hide the asymmetry.

However, the Helen Keller doll has perfectly symmetrical eyes. People online said the doll is not a proper representation of Keller and is sending a harmful message about how people see disabilities. The doll was released days before Global Accessibility Awareness Day on Thursday, which will focus on how to create more digital accessibility and inclusion for people with different disabilities.

@HabenGirma message is important and just right. It’s similar to how Frida Kahlo’s wheelchair or even her walk is often left out in art and conversation, even if @Barbie made Frida into a doll! Everything sends a message about which parts of the disability are “acceptable”.

– Jocelyn✨?✨ (@jocyofthedragon) May 20, 2021

“It’s similar to how Frida Kahlo’s wheelchair or even her walk is often left out in art and conversation, even when Barbie made Frida a doll!” A user posted a comment. “Everything sends a message about what parts of disabilities are ‘acceptable’.”

In a press release, the Helen Keller doll designer, Carlyle Nuera, said she wanted to create a doll that would respect and make someone like Keller stand out.

“Because of her performance as the first deaf-blind person to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree, I wanted to capture that time in her life and imagine what she might have looked and worn as a student at Radcliffe College in the early 1900s.” Said Nuera.

The doll’s clothing and facial structure are based on photos taken by Keller when she was a young woman in the Edwardian era.

Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and global general manager of Barbies at Mattel, said in a statement that the company is excited to add the disability rights attorney to the collection.

“Representation comes in all forms and we recognize that the blind and visually impaired community is often overlooked and their stories are not told,” McKnight said. “We hope that with the introduction to Helen Keller’s story of perseverance and determination, children will be inspired to dream bigger than ever.”

Despite the doll’s goal of highlighting Keller’s work and achievements as a writer, educator, and lawyer, people online said the doll was harmful to blind children and adults.

Have Girma, a human rights lawyer and deaf-blind woman with asymmetrical eyes, said she was teased about her eyes when she was younger and asked by adults to hide her eyes behind dark glasses.

“It’s frustrating and disappointing that this new Barbie doll is erasing that part of Helen Keller’s experience,” Girma said in a video she posted on Twitter.

Girma also said the book Keller was holding that said “Braille” felt like a sign.

“It sounds like a doll for sighted girls,” said Girma. “I’m really disappointed with this and I wish blind children had access to more toys and dolls that actually represent our real experiences.”

So many of us hide or change for “perfect” eyes; If I had had a doll with eyes like mine as a kid, it would have made a huge difference. Thx @HabenGirma

– Christian Lopez (@CLo_deLA) May 21, 2021

“So many of us hide or change for ‘perfect’ eyes,” commented one user. “If I had had a doll with eyes like mine as a kid, it would have made a huge difference.”

Mattel did not immediately respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.

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* First published: May 21, 2021, 2:49 p.m. CDT

Jennifer Xia

Jennifer Xia is an editorial intern for the Daily Dot and a sophomore journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. She previously worked for Austin Monthly and Austin Woman magazines.

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