As a Women’s and Gender Studies faculty member, I’m hyper-attuned to representations—of beauty, of consumption, of masculinity—in the world around me.  As the parent of a daughter with Down syndrome, I’ve become equally attuned to representations of people with disabilities.  Now that we’re well into the holiday season, I’ve been interested to see how children with disabilities appear in all the holiday-themed programming and advertising, if they appear at all.

The big problem is that kids like my daughter rarely show up at all in mainstream media.  Holiday specials pass by, one after the other, and my husband and I find that we’re searching increasingly desperately for disabled characters.  “Oh,” I said the other day while listening to the Muppet Christmas CD, “I think Animal is a person with special needs!”  He doesn’t speak clearly, he obviously has some behavioral challenges, including difficult controlling his emotions, but he’s a beloved and valuable member of the rock band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.  It’s occurred to me that we may be able to use Rudolph as a role model in the future, as well—his community initially interprets his difference as abnormal and undesirable, but they come to see it as a talent and a benefit.  But in terms of actual human beings, the representational terrain is fairly bleak.

There are exceptions.  Toys R Us, for instance, has a catalog specifically for kids with disabilities—kids that they kindly, but awkwardly, call “differently-abled.”  Whoopi Goldberg and a child with Down syndrome are on the cover, and all the toys in the catalog feature kids with various disabilities playing with them.  The toys are described in terms of their educational and/or therapeutic potential:  for instance, the Fisher Price “Go Baby Go! Crawl-Along Drum Roll” is marketed as providing gross motor, tactile, auditory, visual, and thinking stimulation.  I do appreciate that, since Biffle and I are eager for Maybelle’s playtime to be stimulating, and we are often on the lookout for toys that will help her in one or another of the areas we’re working on in therapy.

But the fact that kids like Maybelle only appear in the “differently-abled” catalog is distressing.  These kids are all in their own catalog, even though all the toys are the same as the ones in the regular Toys R Us lineup.  As one of my colleagues pointed out, “If you want to know who a society doesn’t value, look at who they segregate.”  So, while I’m very glad that Toys R Us is documenting the existence of disabled kids—not just kids with Down syndrome but those with autism and a range of physical disabilities, as well—I do wish that these kids were fully included in all their marketing, so that their catalogs would help make these kids’ full inclusion in society at large seem normal, desirable, even unremarkable.