When American Girl Doll announced this week that its 2014 Girl of the Year Doll was a blond ballet dancer named Isabelle, at least one avid fan was crestfallen: Melissa Shang, 10, of Pennsylvania. And so Shang, who has muscular dystrophy, did something about it: She launched a Change.org petition asking Mattel (which owns American Girl) to create a doll with a disability, picking up 15,000 signatures in less than a week.
"I want other girls to understand what it's like to be me," she tells Yahoo Shine, explaining the impetus behind her effort-a joint one between herself and her supportive sister YingYing. While American Girl does sell wheelchairs, crutches and hearing aids for their dolls, Melissa was hoping for a doll with a story.
"She was really disappointed," YingYing tells Yahoo Shine about when Melissa saw leaked photos of Isabella on an Instagram American Girl Doll fan community. "Nothing against blond dancers, but they've already had two dancers, so that story has been told already." YingYing, a Harvard freshman and youth activist, then asked Melissa what sort of American Girl Doll she would like to see. "She said there weren't any disabled ones," she says, "and that she'd emailed American Girl about it before but had never gotten a response."
That's when the sisters decided to petition Mattel--specifically Jean McKenzie, president of American Girl--and when Melissa made an accompanying YouTube video to further plead her case. "I've read all of the American Girl books and seen all the movies, and I'm ready for an American Girl who looks like me," she says, sitting in front of her family Christmas tree and holding one of her American Girl dolls, Saige. "Disabled girls are American girls too. We face challenges and overcome them every day."
Mattel did not return a call seeking comment from Yahoo Shine.
But Melissa's idea makes a lot of sense, according to Paula Goldberg, executive director and founder of PACER Center, a national training and support center for parents of children with disabilities. "I believe it's important for children to see role models, whether through adults or through toys. We've moved forward in terms of acceptance and understanding of people with disabilities, but we have a long way to go," she says. Goldberg adds, "It's surprising, if you think about it, that American Girl doesn't have a doll with a disability already."
In her petition, Melissa explains that she has a form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, and that she is confined to a wheelchair. "However, we are the same as other girls on the inside, with the same thoughts and feelings," she writes. "American Girls are supposed to represent all the girls that make up American history, past and present." She notes that the Girls of the Year dolls-introduced annually, along with their stories about overcoming challenges and finding success-are her favorites, because of what they teach. "Through Saige, I learned what it's like to be an artist and horseback rider," she writes. "Through McKenna, I learned what it's like to be a gymnast. Girls of the Year have helped me understand how it feels to be someone else."
This year's Girl of the Year, Isabelle Palmer, is described on the American Girl website as being "excited to start the dance program at Anna Hart School of the Arts. Then she realizes how talented her classmates are. Keeping up is a challenge-until Isabelle discovers a unique talent to truly call her own."
Melissa says she has lessons to offer, too. "Sometimes on the playground, other girls will be doing the monkey bars or running or doing things that I can't do, and I feel lonely," she tells Yahoo Shine. "And loneliness is something that everyone can understand."
About the petition, she adds excitedly, "I feel like this is really going to work."