Dolls with Down syndrome become internet hit
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Walk down the doll aisle of any toy store and you’re likely to see dolls of both sexes and many different ethnicities.
But, as 9-year-old Hannah Feda discovered a few years ago: “There’s no doll that looks like me.”
Hannah, now 13, has Down syndrome. As the fifth of six kids she grew up surrounded by dolls that resembled her siblings. Her mom, Connie Feda, figured there must be dolls that look like kids with Down syndrome, but after months of searching online, she couldn’t find a doll that portrayed kids with Downs in a flattering way.
So she set out to make the dolls herself.
“I knew from the get-go people would want them,” said Feda from her home in Robinson Township, just outside of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. “It has been much more vigorously embraced from many more vantages than I expected.”
After contacting a doll sculptor and a manufacturer, Feda set up Dolls for Downs, initially thinking she could sell 250 online. Barely three years later, she’s already sold out her first order of 1,000 dolls and is taking preorders for the second batch of 1,000. The dolls sell for $75, plus shipping. The dolls have almond-shaped eyes, a flattened facial profile and even an optional chest scar to reflect a common surgery some children with Down syndrome have.
Feda has received orders from 12 countries, including such far flung places as Brazil, Australia and Greece.
“It’s exciting getting to hear people’s stories from all over the world,” said the Guide Leader.
But she’s not without her detractors. The former head of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, Krista Flint, spoke out against the dolls last month, saying they stigmatize children with the condition and promote the stereotype that all of those with Down syndrome are alike.
The current executive director of the organization, Kirk Crowther, said that while the Canadian Down Syndrome Society supports any family that decides to purchase the doll for their child, he worries that the dolls send the wrong message.
“There is an assumption made by the public that all people with Down syndrome look the same, they all have the same abilities, when really they’re just like the general population. Every person is different and they certainly want to be treated that way.”
Feda dismisses this logic, saying all dolls are the same to some extent.
“All Barbies are the same. All Kens are the same. What we’re hoping to do is take that sameness and make it less threatening and have people be more accepting of it,” she said.
Dolls for Downs is selling 12 different girl dolls and six boy dolls, each with a name and story.
They aren’t only for kids with Down syndrome, Feda says. Her very first order came from a mother in Kansas who wrote that while her daughter doesn’t have Down syndrome, she has a friend with the disorder and wanted her collection of dolls to have a friend like hers.
The standard 18” dolls also serve a therapeutic function, helping teach kids with Down syndrome how to tie laces, button buttons and do up zippers. It’s for this reason that the National Down Syndrome Society in the U.S. supports the project and several therapists have ordered dolls and intend to use them with patients, Feda said.
They’re planning on introducing AFO leg braces, which many children with Down syndrome are hesitant to use, but might be convinced if they had a doll with them too.
Asked why no one has seized this specialized market before, Feda says it’s too small and specialized to motivate the big toy companies.
“I like to think that because I’m somebody’s mother and not some marketer, that makes my dolls more attractive,” she said.
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