Australian society pillars on fairness, equality, and giving everybody a fair go, so how come accessibility still falls through the cracks? Sometimes companies don’t know what they don’t know, and they end up learning from their mistakes, like what happened on Mattel’s journey to designing an inclusive and accessible Barbie.
Accessibility in Australia
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, over 6.8 million Australians over the age of 18 have some form of disability. In 2009, 290,000 Australian children ages 0-14 reported having a disability, with over half being a severe disability and nearly one in five being moderate or mild. Sadly, people with disabilities are often socially isolated and have fewer opportunities to participate in the community. Thankfully, shifting public attitudes to promote social inclusion, remove barriers, and educate the public on disability rights have helped to improve the quality of life for Australians with disabilities in recent years.
Mattel’s Disability Barbie
Even successful brands can make mistakes, as we saw in 1997 when Mattel’s iconic Barbie brand released Share-a-Smile Becky, one of Barbie’s friends with a wheelchair, but missed the mark on accessibility. The Becky doll was instantly popular, with over 6000 units sold in the first week. Unfortunately, Mattel forgot to consider how the doll’s new wheelchair would work with Barbie’s Dream House, and the chair wasn’t able to fit through the house doors. Despite the lack of accessibility, consumers were excited about the representation of disabilities in children’s toys.
Though Mattel’s original Share-a-Smile Becky may have been an accessibility flop, Mattel was keen to try again. In 2019, Mattel committed its Fashionista Barbie line to representing diversity. Included in the diversity line were two new Barbie dolls with disabilities. Mattel took Share-a-Smile Becky’s feedback seriously and designed dolls with a prosthetic leg and dolls in a wheelchair, this time with working wheels, brake, and an accessibility ramp compatible with Barbie’s Dreamhouse. In anticipation of the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Mattel has also released the Barbie Para-Alpine Skier doll. This doll comes wearing professional ski gear and is equipped with outrigger skis, sit-ski, and a gold winner’s medal. Inspiring dolls like the Para-Alpine Barbie encourage kids with disabilities to dream big and inspire other kids to celebrate and respect differences and disabilities.
What about your organization?
If one thing’s for certain, the excitement surrounding these Barbies shows that conversations about inclusivity and accessibility are picking up speed and social change is being made. Mattel’s shift from one standard ideal Barbie to a more realistic and multi-dimensional perspective of beauty and fashion is one example of how any company can make a difference for people with disabilities. When companies display a willingness to pay attention to market demands and listen to feedback, it encourages a diverse society and reduces stigmas against disabilities.
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