A Doll Like Me — Every Child Should Feel Included

Children with disabilities don’t often see themselves represented—and if they do, it’s commonly an inaccurate or even harmful portrayal, as the movie ‘The Witches’ has shown in recent weeks. Amy seeks to change this through her work at ‘A Doll Like Me.’ She creates dolls that resemble their owners: children with a variety of disabilities, so that every child feels seen. ABILITY Magazine’s Karina Sturm spoke with Amy about her motivation behind her non-profit and asked Mallory and daughter Alsae what their doll and disability representation means to them. 

A young girl with long black hair, glasses and a shirt with flowers lies on the ground. Next to her is a doll with short black hair and a limb difference
‘A Doll Like Me’ creates dolls that resemble their owner

“Every kid should see themselves on the store shelves.” That’s the short answer to what motivated Amy Jandrisevits to set up her non-profit A Doll Like Me. Amy is a 47-year-old mother of three who was a social worker at a pediatric oncology unit. “I think you always use whatever your experience is to shape who you are and what you do. Being a social worker at that time, I realized, kids of color and kids with any type of difference, whether it is a hand difference, wearing a hearing aid, or they are going through chemotherapy, are wildly underrepresented in the toy market,” Amy explains. 

Two decades ago, Amy organized a Christmas donation program for the hospital she worked in. “There was this little girl, an African-American child, who had just gone through chemo and lost all of her hair. It felt so wrong to say, ‘Here is this blonde princess for you for Christmas.’ It was not a good fit, but at that time, nothing else existed.”

Indeed, throughout my whole childhood in Germany in the 90s, it was a spectacle if a doll did have anything but a white skin tone; all of our dolls were white, had blue eyes and blonde hair. I remember in kindergarten, we had this little corner area featuring a kitchen and tiny beds for our dolls. One day, a new doll was introduced: It had brown eyes and a darker skin compared to the other toys. All the children, including me, were staring at this beautiful toy. None of us had ever seen one like this. 

Since then, we certainly have made tiny steps towards a more inclusive toy market. However, there is much room for improvement, especially when it comes to representing children with disabilities. “We have definitely made strides. For American Girl, for example, it’s been a pretty big step this year to release a doll with a hearing aid. I am glad they did that. But it’s really not that big a deal. Right? People have had hearing aids in some capacity for many years,” Amy states. Forty-eight million people in the US live with some degree of hearing loss, and in total, 3.9 percent of US families have a child with a disability, whether they use prosthetics, a wheelchair, or have visible or invisible disabilities. They are a large minority. 

Amy feels that every child has the right to receive a doll that represents themselves—no matter their ethnicity, ability or social status. Six years ago, Amy would sew Raggedy Ann dolls for fun in her spare time, until fate stepped in. “Somebody saw one of my dolls—they did not have any type of a difference—and said, ‘Gosh, she looks just like my child,’ who had had an amputation. So this person asked me if I could create a doll with an amputated leg.” Amy did, and it was just the beginning. Photos of the doll she made were shared widely, and two months later, she had 200 more requests for dolls with limb differences in her inbox. 

Since then, Amy has produced dolls with a variety of disabilities and chronic health conditions. “People are hungry for representation, and we all would go to the ends of the earth for someone we love,” she says. One of her favorite dolls, she created for a girl from Syria who flew to Turkey after her family’s house was bombed during war. She was severely burned on one side of her body, with her hair not growing back on half of her head. “Just from a skill level, it was very difficult, but even more so emotionally. We have become so callous and turned a blind eye to what happens in other countries. We often act like, ‘If it does not affect me, it is not a big deal.’ This doll put a face to what a Syrian refugee looks like.”

From her dining table, which her family has not been able to use for dinner for many years, she sends out dolls to children all around the globe. A few years ago, Alsae, a cheerful 7-year-old girl with long blonde hair that flows down her back, received a special gift. Alsae, not pronounced like Princess Elsa in Frozen—even though Alsae does look a bit like her—lives with a genetic condition called microgastria limb reduction defect, with fewer than 60 cases reported around the world. “Lots of the symptoms Alsae has, doctors have never seen before,” Alsae’s mom, Mallory, says. “There is a whole spectrum of what parts of her body could be affected by her condition. She basically doesn’t have a spleen; her kidneys are affected; she has severe scoliosis, and just had back surgery; she has neck anomalies and has been in halo traction for four and a half months when she was one, and again when she was five for four weeks. And it also affects her limbs and her arms,” Mallory explains. 

When I ask Mallory how Alsae’s disability changes her daily life, she says that it does and it does not. Since Alsae was born with limb differences, she has always figured out a way to make things work. Alsae loves to draw, and “she has the best fine motor skills I’ve ever seen,” Mallory says. “But that being said, she also struggles to button her pants, for example. Her spinal problems affect her greatly because she is not able to do certain things that other kids can do.”

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When I meet Alsae, I quickly realize what her mom meant when she said she truly lights up a room. She confidently sits down in front of her mom’s laptop. I can only see her hairline—the chair is too small. “I am tall, and I am smart,” Alsae says. I laugh. She props up on a pillow and shows me her most beaming smile. We start talking, and Alsae tells me her favorite subjects are writing, reading and math. Math, in particular, she likes because she gets to incorporate her passion, drawing, using a differently colored marker every day. “I never draw the same thing,” she says. During one of her hospital stays, she met a little girl that could only speak Spanish. Now, Alsae is determined to learn Spanish so that she can speak with her. She can already count to 29 in Spanish, as she demonstrated for me.

Alsae has to spend a lot of time in hospitals overall due to her chronic illness. One year, when she had to spend Christmas in a sterile hospital room, Mallory tried to find the perfect gift for her daughter and found A Doll Like Me. Back then, Alsae was only one year old and didn’t fully understand how unique her doll was. The beautiful toy mirrors her in the smallest of details. It even has two scars on the head in the same spot where Alsae had her halo traction. 

Two years ago, Amy changed the doll to look more like grown-up Alsae. When I ask Alsae to tell me a bit about her doll, the first thing she says is, “She looks just like me!” and points towards the doll’s hands. “I think it’s incredibly important to have a doll that is uniquely beautiful like she is,” Mallory says. The doll’s name is Alsae, the 7-year-old explains, and she likes to draw and all the other things Alsae enjoys. In general, representation of children with disabilities like Alsae’s in media or really anywhere is lacking. “In today’s day and age, we are so concerned about making sure we are representing a lot of different groups in minorities, and there is not only one person with a disability in the world; there are a lot of people in wheelchairs, with limb differences, and many other differences. I don’t think we do a good job representing them,” Mallory emphasizes. 

Recently, Alsae’s limb difference was portrayed on TV—just not the way Mallory and the whole disability community had hoped for. In the newly released film The Witches, actress Anne Hathaway plays the Grand High Witch, a character portrayed as scary by her three-fingered hand. “At first, I thought, ‘This cannot be it. The witch must turn good in the end. There needs to be some reason why they did this.’ I started researching and just got hotter and hotter inside. How could this have gone through so many people, and nobody noticed that this is problematic?” Mallory says. Mallory does everything to let Alsae know that she can do anything she sets her mind to and that nothing will hold her back. “But this film really hit us hard because they added on this feature just to make the character appear scarier.”

According to a statement by Warner Bros., Hathaway’s role was supposed to have ‘cat-like claws,’ but their adaption wasn’t quite reflecting that and led to severe criticism from people with disabilities, especially people with limb differences. Using the hashtag #NotAWitch, many disabled people aired out their anger and made their voices heard. Mallory spoke out as well. “I’m afraid of what a movie like this will do to young, impressionable minds. I’m afraid my beautiful child will be called a witch. This is not empowering to those born different, it is cruel. It is not okay to mark it up as scary, and correlate it with an evil character,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

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As a consequence of the harsh criticism, Anne Hathaway apologized using a video of the Lucky Fin Project, an organization focused on raising awareness for people  living with limb differences, and stating, “Let me begin by saying I do my best to be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others not out of some scrambling PC fear, but because not hurting others seems like a basic level of decency we should all be striving for. As someone who really believes in inclusivity and really, really detests cruelty, I owe you all an apology for the pain caused. I am sorry. I did not connect limb difference with the GHW when the look of the character was brought to me; if I had, I assure you this never would have happened.” Mallory is glad Anne Hathaway and Warner Bros. acknowledged their mistake and apologized for it. However, it doesn’t mean much to her without consequential actions. “I know they did not cause this harm intentionally, but it is something that led to so much pain. Let’s say you are beating someone up, and you are like, ‘Oh, sorry,’ but you keep hitting the person—they are still airing the film—so in my head, they are still throwing punches. From a parent standpoint, I thought, ‘Cool, you apologized. Now what?'” Negative representation like this doesn’t only cause harm to children with disabilities now; it might influence generations after, which makes Amy’s work even more critical. 

Amy doesn’t like to call her non-profit a business or even work. “It is a mission,” she says. At the beginning, she made a doll at a time, charging a fee that barely covered her expenses. A bit later, smaller donations enabled her to offer the dolls to families without a cost. From the very start, she didn’t want the families ordering the dolls to pay for them, and she never said no if someone wasn’t able to cover the costs for the material. “I would just eat it. Not making a doll for someone who cannot pay for it is not in line with who I am,” she says. 

Then, two years ago, GoFundMe chose Amy as their Hero, which led to some media interest and the opportunity to convert A Doll Like Me to a non-profit organization. Since that day, Amy was able to provide all dolls to their little owners without a charge. “There is always this very brief pause in our interactions when I say, ‘You don’t have to pay because somebody already did.’ For some of these kids, their life is scrutiny. They are constantly judged or asked what is wrong with them. And this random act of kindness validates their beauty,” Amy explains. 

Her non-profit is not a factory either. She sets her intention on each child and their doll—she finishes one doll before moving on to the next one. “It is like a prayer shawl. You think about the person you are making the doll for as you’re working. Some people pray for the person; however, I am thinking about things like: Is this doll going to sleep in their bed? Is it going to be in the hospital?” To Amy, they are not just dolls; they are a representation of a person, which makes her ‘business’ so unique. 

A baby in a colorful outfit sits next to her doll with a limb difference
Amy has created many dolls with a variety of disabilities

Amy has big plans for her future. She hopes that on a bigger scale, advocacy will get us closer to inclusion. “I also feel like my kids should never watch TV without stuffing a doll,” Amy laughs. Additionally, she just wants to keep sewing on her messy dining room table, she says. “I crave being down there because I love doing it. It does not get old. Sometimes, people do not quite realize what an impact you can have on somebody.” And on the financial side, she hopes her business will be self-sufficient, so that she can always guarantee the families that their dolls are already paid for.

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“We really have to look at how we rectify that mixed message: You are beautiful. You are perfect just the way you are, but… you’re never going to see yourself. This is why I make these dolls. And the most powerful part about them is that for the first time in these kids’ lives, they’re seeing themselves!” Besides having a major impact on each little person’s life, Amy’s dolls also reflect the bigger picture: Representation does matter, and there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. But with people like Amy, we will get there, a doll at a time. 

All images: A Doll Like Me

You can support Amy and A Doll Like Me via GoFundMe or Facebook.

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by Karina Ulrike Sturm

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