Get notice of new posts
Connect with me!
Help Support Our Climb
Damn Fine Words Writing Course

Archive for October, 2015

Building Community: Wheelchair Becky vs. Flat Stanley

Barbie and Friends

Barbie tries to become PC

Clueless Barbie

Some of the major stores are already advertising their holiday toy sales. This made me think of Barbie and her friends.

Some say the Barbie doll was the most influential icon of late 20th century American culture. In fact, she rated no. 43 on the 101 most influencial people who never lived (Click here).

Some say Barbie had it all: perfect body, perfect boyfriend and perfect everything.

Many little girls still think Barbie is the definition of beauty and a great role model, after all she has been a presidential candidate, an astronaut, in the arm services, in the business and entertainment worlds. Barbie didn’t even need a phone booth like Superman, all she had to do was change her shoes. In 2009, Barbie brought in $1.2 billion in annual revenue for Mattel.

But in my opinion, Mattel missed a powerful opportunity to be a leader for inclusion and community building–a real chance to make a difference in the world.

Mattel captured the feminist and toy market for “perfect” dolls, but it didn’t do as well with the non-white, “non-perfect” market. In the 1980s Barbie went multiracial and Mattel introduced Black Barbie, Hispanic Barbie and other dolls in their International Collection.

But these new “culturally diverse” dolls still had European features, and to me, seemed to be basically the original Barbie in costumes, with darker hair and skin.

Instead of becoming a leader, promoting sensitivity and understanding, Mattel reinforced the dominant cultural stereotype and dismissed the natural beauty of other races and cultures. A lost opportunity for all of us. Certainly a lost chance to teach tolerance and respect for people with disabilities.

In 1997, Mattel ignored even the basic “People First” language (click here) with Wheelchair Becky. When a little girl with cerebral palsy complained, they renamed the doll Share-a-Smile Becky. Most advocates would say, “Becky” would have been enough.

Good intentions aren’t enough.

Like many perfect people, Barbie and Mattel didn’t get past their good intentions. When everyone learned Becky’s long hair got caught in the rungs of her wheelchair, and Barbie’s Dreamhouse and expensive cars were not wheelchair accessible, Mattel folded.

Rather than make Barbie’s perfect world accessible and promote universal design and inclusion, Becky disappeared from Barbie’s neighborhood, er… store shelves.

Who wants to be perfect anyway?

But like many people with disabilities, Wheelchair Becky was resilient and found her own friends and adventures.

Last week someone sent me a web update on what Wheelchair Becky has been doing. Click here to join her for a beer and enjoy her wild ride– with Perfect Barbie nowhere in sight.

(Exaggeration is part of humor and comedy. If the pendulum moves a little too far for your taste, remember this is about making Becky more human. I liked that she is shown as an adult…for good or bad. Attitude and change are not child’s play.)

Seeing her here, there and everywhere, the Wheelchair Becky adventures reminded me of the building community activity I did with several classes around the book, Flat Stanley.

Flat Stanley with Boga in Kenya
Creative Commons License photo credit: davidwatterson

Flat Stanley doing it right

Like Wheelchair Barbie, Stanley had an accident that resulted in some physical challenges. But Flat Stanley was also resilient, clever and he uses his unique physical condition to his advantage. Because he can now fit into an envelope he doesn’t have to worry about crowded flights and paying extra for luggage.

If you go to the Hall of Fame (click here) you will see Stanley has been in space, to the Academy Awards, to the White House and many exciting places.

In the picture we see Flat Stanley with a new friend in Kenya. Wouldn’t it be neat to have a pen pal from the other side of the world? Many teachers and school children think this personal connection is the best way to teach about different life styles and cultures.

The Flat Stanley Project is an international literacy and community building activity for students of all ages, teachers and families.

Check out for student and teacher testimonials, a phone app, templates for Flat Stanley and other characters including Flat Pilgrim, Flat Santa and the newest Flat Mrs. Claus.

For a history of the Flat Stanley project, click here.

My class used Flat Stanley and other Flat characters like Flat Pilgrim, Flat Santa, and the new one, Flat Mrs. Claus to become pen pals to let the children share their cultures with different people as well as practice their literacy skills.

Literacy and Service Learning Project

One group of preservice teachers was tutoring primary students with learning problems. They made the Flat Stanley Project into a literacy experience and a service learning project. We all donated a couple dollars and sent copies of the Flat Stanley books as well as art materials, disposable cameras and mailing supplies so our pen pal classes could exchange letters and pictures. We even found colored markers and pencils which allowed more diversity in colors and shades of skin tones. We included scissors which could be used by students who were left or right handed.

We paired the students in the literacy practicum from our small college town, with a class in an inner city in Charleston, SC and on an Indian Reservation in Montana. The project was a great success.

Dolls, Books, and People teach about diversity.

Inclusion is a way of life. And it includes Wheelchair Becky, Flat Stanley and yes, even Perfect Barbie.

with laptop
Creative Commons License photo credit: Liz Henry

Comments: What are the lessons of Barbie and Friends vs. Flat Stanley? What could have been different? Can we use toys for social change?

Becky looks like she is going to do some social networking on her laptop. What do you think she would write? What about Flat Stanley and Flat Mr. and Mrs. Claus? And what recommendations do you have for Barbie and other toy manufacturers? Are there some lessons for the holidays? Tell us what you are thinking?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All my best,


Functional Curriculum: use it or lose it

To celebrate the new school year here are some of my favorite posts:

Article 1: Why Do We Go to School?

Article 2: Back to School| A New Year of Learning

Article 3: Back to School| What is Inclusion?

Aaron learning money skills

Aaron learning money skills to use in store

Functional Curriculum

When my son Aaron was in school, shopping was part of his curriculum. From the time he was ten years old he went to the bank and grocery one day a week as part of his special education school program.

This was best practice and came from the work of Drs. Lou Brown, Alison Ford, Sharon Freagon and many others. The idea of a functional curriculum for people with autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities is:

* it takes longer to learn skills, so let’s make sure we teach important skills and not waste their time on dumb stuff

* it takes lots of practice, so let’s give the student lots of opportunities and trials

* use it or lose it, so let’s make sure the skill is something the student will need their whole life

* transition from school to adult life will be smoother

* we only teach skills that if the person didn’t do it, someone else would have to do it for them

* the ability to purchase items would give the person more dignity, self-esteem, self-determination skills and choices in their life

The way it worked was each week, Mom sent in a check for $10.00 and a shopping list. The class went to the same grocery store (because each store is different). Each student cashed their check at the bank and then bought items from the list to take home.

In addition, students also planned a lunch to be made in the classroom the following day. Each would purchase a couple items for that group lunch. These items were purchased with the classroom credit card.

This functional curriculum was based on the philosophy that Aaron would go to the grocery the rest of his life. Before the school year started the IEP team decided this was a high priority skill because he would need to buy food and other items when he was an adult. If he didn’t learn to purchase these items, someone else would have to buy them for him. If Aaron could purchase the items he would have more choices and say in his life and therefore a better quality of life. (Who wants someone else deciding you can only have Cheerios for breakfast all your life.)

Related Service Staff

The curriculum was designed by the IEP team including specialists and the parents. After all, who would be taking the student to the grocery on the weekends, summer, and after school. And who knew what the student liked better than their parents?

I was in the school a lot and went on many of the community training trips with Aaron and his class.

It takes a Village

The speech and language therapist helped Aaron build picture sequences of “shopping at Krogers,” check-off lists with pictures for grocery lists, and learn to interact with the cashier “Thank You” and give a High 5 to the bagger….

The occupational therapist helped Aaron figure out which coin purse/wallet worked best, learn to pay with the next highest bill, learn how to take the money out of his wallet (hold wallet in left hand and take out bills with right) and after many failures of getting the change back in the wallet–it was decided Aaron should just put the change in his pocket….

The physical therapist helped Aaron figure out how to climb up and down the steps on the bus (hold on the rail with his right hand and count the steps), how to maneuver the parking lot (and yes we had an IEP goal that said with 50% accuracy), how to enter the right door–even if there are two “in” doors,
how to reach the items on the bottom shelves (hold on to the grocery cart with his left hand and reach with his right)….

Depending on the therapists schedules, they might only be involved in periodic assessments, or they could go with the class every week. This was an excellent way for the therapist got to really see Aaron in this environment and practice REAL life skills.

The teacher and assistant teachers went every week with the 6-8 students in the multi-handicapped class. She/he helped Aaron match his pictures to the actual items in the store, find his favorite items and put them in the cart, learning appropriate social skills….

After High School

Unfortunately now that Aaron is out of school, he has lost most of those skills because adult service staff refuse to take him to the store or don’t have the knowledge or support they need. Here is a story about Aaron’s home (click here). It is not the fault of the staff. Some of them are very loving and do a great job.

So I take him every weekend when he is home with us. Here is a story of a recent shopping trip (click here).

Aaron and I are a team and we have worked out our own system. We only shop for about 10 items and Aaron puts the items in the cart. Sometimes Aaron will grab something off the shelf and if it is anywhere close to something he might want, I’ll let him buy it. ie. if it is a bag of cookies or cereal –he can keep it. If it is a box of denture tablets probably I’ll tell him what it is and put it back.

Choices: Quality of Life and “If Only”

If I had the opportunity to change things in Aaron’s life, it would be that adult services used a functional curriculum and adult residential services gave Aaron and others with autism and severe disabilities the opportunities to practice their skills. There is no question Aaron would not currently be LOSING these skills. There is no question these skills would enhance Aaron’s self-esteem and quality of life.

The reason I could insist on these skills being taught and used when Aaron was school age was because of the federal mandate in IDEA. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act said that parents were part of the IEP team and the parents had due process if they disagreed with the school personel. There is no such mandate for Adult Services, no due process for parents and/or guardians. Plus, in Adult Services the staff does not have to be trained or have any teaching license.

As my friend Deb used to say, “When I am made Queen of the Universe” I will declare it. Until then, I’ll take Aaron every weekend and give him as many functional experiences I can.

And of course, I’ll dream of the day I am Queen of the Universe. *smile*

What ifs? Comments?

Any stories about your child’s school experiences preparing them for the future? Any luck with using those skills in their adult life?
Anyone else want to be “Queen of the Universe”?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All my best,


Related Posts

Building Community| One grocery trip at a time

It’s a Jungle out there| Inclusion in the grocery store

Kill the Turkeys! Life Lessons for People with disabilities