Down Syndrome Awareness: More Than a Barbie Doll

Mattel's recent release of a Barbie doll with Down syndrome is cause to celebrate the miracle of life and precious value of all people with special needs.

A little girl points at the newly released Barbie doll with features similar to people with Down syndrome.

By Tom Sileo Published on May 3, 2023

We girls can do anything, right Barbie?”

As you may have read about on The Stream, Mattel recently released a Barbie doll with Down syndrome. As our wonderful staff writer and proofreader Aliya Kuykendall reported last week, the new line of Barbie fashionistas sold out almost immediately.

For children with Down syndrome and their parents, including my wife and me, this isn’t just some toy company releasing a new doll. It is a landmark moment. Having spent the last three-plus years witnessing the challenges faced by people with Down syndrome up close, it is enormously encouraging to see the special needs community being recognized and celebrated by one of America’s most iconic brands.

Adding to our elation is knowing two very special people who helped make the dream of a Barbie with Down syndrome a reality. As seen in the video embedded below, National Down Syndrome Society President Kandi Pickard and Manager of Grassroots Advocacy Kayla McKeon introduced the newest Barbie doll on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Kayla and Kandi were the very first people to welcome our daughter Natalie to New York when our family traveled to a Times Square event this past September. They were so kind to Nat, as was the entire NDSS staff. In just a few minutes, we could tell that their commitment to advocating for people with Down syndrome was authentic, sincere and full of love. They brought that same enthusiastic spirit to a nationally televised audience while unveiling a doll that they helped design.

“You’ll see that the Barbie doll itself is a little shorter in stature, which is typical for people with Down syndrome,” said Kandi, who has a son, Mason, with Down syndrome. “(The doll) has smaller features: you see the almond-shaped eyes; the bridge of the nose. There is also a crease in the palm.”

“Let’s start with her necklace: those three arrows that are pointing upward,” added Kayla, who has Trisomy 21. “That is what makes up Down syndrome: the three copies of the 21st chromosome. With those three arrows are the symbol of Down syndrome, which is the lucky few. And that’s what unites the community together.”

Natalie and Kayla

Natalie Sileo meets National Down Syndrome Society Manager of Grassroots Advocacy Kayla McKeon in New York on September 16, 2022.

Like almost all parents of children with special needs, my wife and I never expected to become a part of this precious community. Indeed, the hard work of organizations like NDSS and consequential moments like the unveiling of this Barbie doll brings together families of people with Down syndrome and all special needs.

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Unfortunately but also unsurprisingly in these troubled times, there has been some criticism of the new Barbie doll with Down syndrome. The cruelest comments have come from social media cowards hiding behind their keyboards, most of whom probably couldn’t make it through a single one of Natalie’s physical therapy sessions. As hard as it is to sympathize with anyone who mocks extraordinary human beings like my daughter, I pray that these misguided souls will someday see the error of their ways.

Some have accused Mattel’s release of this Barbie doll as being yet another example of a company “going woke.” As a Down syndrome dad, I couldn’t disagree more. To me, the doll not only represents “the lucky few,” as Kayla so eloquently put it, but the value of each and every human life.

It was not long ago that people born with Down syndrome were being cast off and institutionalized. Today, a new generation of kids who’ve never even heard of Down syndrome can play with a Barbie doll sporting a cool-looking upward three-arrowed necklace to symbolize the community’s resilience. Perhaps that experience will teach them not to make fun of or bully classmates with special needs, but to reach out and give them a hug instead.

I was not expecting to see criticism of the doll coming from some corners of the Down syndrome community. Most of the comments I’ve seen online have been focused on the Barbie supposedly not looking enough like a person with Trisomy 21. While I understand the sensitivity, aren’t all people with Down syndrome unique, from their achievements to their appearance? As a father who will fiercely defend my daughter throughout her life, I just don’t see anything wrong with this Barbie doll. In fact, it embodies everything that’s right about embracing the beauty of people like our little girl.

Every single day Natalie has been a part of our family, she’s brought us happiness and joy, even during the most difficult moments. That’s why seeing a bright smile like hers on the face of a Barbie doll means more than I ever could have expected.

Natalie doesn’t have her new Barbie doll yet, but when she gets one, I can guess what she might say.

“We girls can do anything, right Barbie?”

 

Tom Sileo is a contributing senior editor of The Stream. He is the author of the recently released Be Bold and co-author of Three Wise MenBrothers Forever8 Seconds of Courage and Fire in My Eyes. Follow Tom on Twitter @TSileo and The Stream at @Streamdotorg.

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