American Girl has taken a courageous step towards diversity with the launch of dolls with hearing aids, well as dolls without hair, signaling to the disability community that little girls who are differently-abled are important enough to have their own personalized doll experience.
Any 18-inch My American Girl doll can be fitted with one or two hearing aids to make her hard of hearing or deaf, whichever her owner desires. All it takes is a visit to the doll hospital, where a doctor will perform a permanent piercing behind one or both ears for a $14 fee. New dolls also can be ordered with hearing aids already installed. The hearing aids are removable and sell at all American Girl stores, and online, for $14 each.
The company also released an adorable service dog-in-training set for dolls who are blind or in need of assistance. The dog, Chocolate Chip, wears a service vest with a handle that a girl’s doll can hold. The set comes with a selection of faux treats, and costs $34. Chocolate Chip is receiving strong feedback from customers. On the American Girl website, a service dog handler says “the harness handle is the right length and the pockets of the vest are a nice touch.”
American Girl isn’t the first doll maker of its kind to cater to tween girls with disabilities. MyTwinn has long offered its dolls with removable hearing aids, and an online company named Sew Dolling has created Sew-Able, a line of Special Needs Dolls with a variety of impairments and disabilities. Sew-Able dolls have attachable above- and below-the-knee prosthetics, bald heads that come with wigs and hats to represent chemotherapy treatments, and dolls with walking braces, which are more realistic than crutches for kids with mobility impairments.
Dolls without hair are another customization American Girl now offers, making the doll-owning experience even more special for girls who have cancer or alopecia. The dolls must be ordered by phone, and can have light, medium, or dark skin tone. You can also choose your doll’s eye color. Alternatively, a new head without hair can be created on your current doll, for a $44 fee, at the doll hospital.
As a bonus, “American Girl will offer one free doll head replacement should a girl’s need for a doll without hair ever change,” says Julie Parks, Director of Public Relations for American Girl, “because we know that not all hair loss conditions are permanent.” A new free head is a nice touch, and shows that American Girl is being sensitive to the needs of kids with disabilities. If a child’s life or hair situation changes, so should their doll’s.
Indeed, American Girl wants to make its dolls attractive to a larger number of girls. Each doll costs $105, but the company also makes money from sales of its accessories and visits to the doll hospital and hair salon. Mattel, which purchased the Middleton, Wis., company in 1998, recorded American Girl sales of $510.9 million last year and is jockeying for little girls’ hearts after Walt Disney Co. (Disney Princess) and MGA Entertainment (Moxie Girlz) entered the life-like doll market at lower price points.
American Girl first ventured into disability-themed doll accessories in 1997 by experimenting with a wheelchair accessory, which is still sold in stores. It branched out into dolls with temporary injuries and less visible disabilities. They also sell eyeglasses and orthodontics kits. The company’s big breakout this year is McKenna, the American Girl of the Year, who struggles with reading comprehension, or dyslexia. A gymnast, McKenna broke her leg at a gymnastics meet and — no surprise — McKenna’s cast and crutches set are a popular buy for $30.
As for 2013, the doll world is lit up with wonder about the next American Girl of the Year, known as GOTY. On Doll Diaries, a website for tween girls, a reviewer named Lauren says GOTY should have a behavioral disorder, like autism. “I think high-functioning autism would be the best one they can choose, because people with high-functioning autism (like me) tend to be VERY smart…Did you know that Bill Gates has this form of autism? That — and I REALLY want an autistic American Girl doll like me.”
With American Girl looking for ways to include more girls, Lauren may get her wish. The new 2013 GOTY doll will be announced at the end of the year. Until then, to order a new doll with a hearing aid or without hair, contact American Girl’s contact center at (800) 628-5145.