American Girl Announces Announces Its First Disabled “Girl of the Year” Doll for 2020

Post by guest contributor Kate Harveston.

An image of American Girl’s latest doll, Joss Kendrick. Image via The Hill.

Representation matters, especially among our youth. Children with disabilities often feel isolated from their peers due to their perception of being different. Sadly, without mainstream media depictions of such individuals, their abled peers may pay more attention to those differences rather than the strengths such a friend brings. 

Now, American Girl seeks to raise awareness and denounce incorrect perceptions by introducing its first disabled “Girl of the Year” doll for 2020. Hopefully seeing this fictional character living her best life will inspire other disabled youth to reach for their dreams. It may also help to eradicate some of the stigma experienced by those who use assistive devices.

Meet Joss Kendrick

Joss Kendrick is a 10-year old surfer girl from Huntington Beach, California. Previous disabled American Girl dolls have featured McKenna, who had a learning disability, and Gabriella, who had a stutter. Joss is the first to win the prestigious girl of the year designation. 

If you read Joss’s story, you’ll learn that she was born deaf in her left ear, but has partial hearing in her right with the help of a hearing aid. The hope is that seeing the doll with an assistive device will help overcome stereotypes of the disabled community as being shy or retiring. Quite the opposite, Joss is very active! She loves playing with her two brothers and her pet bulldog—and she doesn’t let any challenges keep her from her beloved sport. 

American Girl partnered with the Hearing Loss Association of America in creating Joss’s character and will be donating $25,000 to support the HLAA. The hope is that the real-world depiction Joss will inspire other girls with disabilities to go all-in on their dreams—seeing people just like them goes a long way in this effort.

Why the Disabled Need Representation in the Media 

The disabled are among the most marginalized and invisible groups in America, and most dolls take on normative characteristics. They have functioning arms and legs, as well as eyes and ears that presumably see and hear. When you look at a character in mainstream cartoons and television shows, relatively few have visible disabilities. While some cinematic breakthroughs, such as the recent movie Joker, feature characters with emotional challenges, the majority of protagonists don’t encounter any physical impediments outside of external monsters and bad guys. 

Even though 15% of the world’s populationover a billion people—live with some form of disability, they are ignored by the media, politicians, and even doctors. Half of the disabled cannot afford needed health care. This issue is a severe problem in the US, as many individuals lack insurance coverage, meaning they can’t get the treatments they need to manage their conditions effectively. Because untreated conditions make it challenging to perform on the job, many members of this population are vulnerable to extreme poverty. 

Many young girls already feel somewhat stigmatized by a misogynistic society that establishes different norms for men and women. The addition of physical challenges can make things feel grim. However, when they see characters that resemble them happy and succeeding in life, it will give our youth hope and encouragement that they can do the same. 

Thus, increasing accurate media depictions of the disabled community is vital. Books like El Deafo and others that promote diversity and inclusion belong in every classroom and library. Parents can use films like Finding Dory to discuss neurological differences among people and how speech or memory impediments don’t mean that somebody is unintelligent or unworthy of contributing to society when they are just as brilliant as anyone else.

Writers and producers play a role as well. They can talk to members of the disabled community when designing stories and shows that depict their plight. Only when we openly and honestly discuss the unique challenges facing this population can we make strides in bringing about more meaningful inclusion. Media producers need to show the struggles these individuals face in a realistic and authentic light, while at the same time offering hope that people can and do succeed despite overwhelming odds. 

Until society makes these strides, such as American Girl in their celebration of Joss, disabled students will continue to face bullying at two to three times the rate of their abled peers. They’ll have an increased risk of suicide, both from their struggles with their condition and the subsequent poverty that often results. Can a doll fix all these problems? No, but Joss can do a significant amount to make young, deaf girls feel less alone and their friends more apt to include them in activities.

Recognizing the Contributions of the Disabled Community 

The disabled contribute a lot to society despite the unique challenges that they face, serving as beacons of hope that the human spirit can overcome any odds. It’s well past time that the media started recognizing their triumphs with more depictions like American Girl’s Joss Kendrick!

Congratulations, Joss.

Kate Harveston is a young writer from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She enjoys topics related to culture, feminism, and women’s health, and how those elements intersect and act upon each other. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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