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American Girls

  • Posted on November 14, 2012 at 9:00 AM

As a little girl, I found the advertisements of American Girl very compelling. After all, what could be better than a doll that comes with a book? Unfortunately, as dolls go, American Girls were always rather expensive and I never actually got one. I can’t really complain, though. My parents did buy me less expensive dolls. Beside, my mom actually made me dolls—sewing them by hand and with her sewing machine.

When I recently received a catalog for American Girl toys in the mail, I felt a bit nostalgic. It’s not that I’m going to buy one or anything. After all, I don’t collect dolls and I have sons, not daughters. (Yes, my sons owned dolls and they each played with them, but nothing like these dolls; nor would they want anything like this.)

Anyway, believe it or not, I do have a point. I flipped through the catalog, because I was feeling nostalgic. I noticed how extensive their line of toys has grown. You can customize your doll as well as buy history-related dolls that come with books. They have a lot more accessories than I remember, including pianos, chateaus, and doll-sized horses—not to mention matching clothes for both doll and girl.

I also noticed something even more unexpected. Among the possible accessories there is a service dog set with a bag of fake treats. Several pages later there is a page full of small accessories. There is a purse and a doll hair brush, a violin and case and a doll stand, and other perfectly ordinary doll accessories. But there’s more than that. There’s a healthy smile kit that includes “braces” for the doll and there’s a wheel chair and a hearing aid.

I stared at the page for a while. I thought back to my own childhood and the complete lack of anything (in the category of toys) that validated the existence and acceptability of children with disabilities. I couldn’t help but see this as a sign of progress. After all, if a toy company like American Girl is making disability-related accessories for dolls, then there is almost certainly a demand for these accessories, and furthermore, the people demanding these accessories are being respected by the company.

It’s such a simple thing, and yet it shows respect and validates the existence and worth of children with disabilities. Now, little girls all over America who want dolls who look like them (and whose parents can afford to spend a hundred dollars on a doll, plus more for the accessories) can have a doll that looks like them, regardless of skin or hair or eye color, and regardless of several common disabilities. There’s something about that that just warms my heart.

Inclusion vs. Rhetoric

  • Posted on March 5, 2011 at 12:43 AM

Previously, I have published to short synopses—in blog post style—of chapters for the non-fiction book I’m working on, Neurodiversity at Work: A Manager’s Guide.  First, I wrote a post introducing the neurodiverse workforce, and then I addressed the need to cope with the challenges of inclusion, and the possibility to capitalize on a diverse workforce.  Here I will explore the rhetoric of business in contrast with the language of inclusion.

The Rhetoric of Business

One of the hallmark linguistic requirements of the contemporary business environment is the use of politically correct language.  The emphasis on an externally set linguistic standard betrays a vital fact that most seem quite unaware of, namely that respect is not dictated from the outside in.

Personally, I find that if you genuinely respect people, then respectful language will naturally flow through your use.  If, on the other hand, you are inclined to devalue people, then an externally enforced linguistic standard only seeks to cover up that disrespect.  While the purpose of politically correct language is to express tolerance, the reality is that an externally enforced standard does not breed tolerance, merely compliance.

By following the strictures of politically correct speech and further by attempting to enforce a distant, façade of respect through public and employee relations programs, business cultures convince themselves they practice tolerance.  And yet the problems of internalized prejudice continue.  In gender, race, and disability relations, equality is not attained despite our legislation and the enforcement of politically correct language.  The language used in businesses becomes empty rhetoric that is not played out in the culture of the business or in the everyday choices where prejudice holds its greatest power.

The Language of Inclusion

The language we choose to use can influence the way we think about the world and the way we perceive each other.  Choice is a significant factor, however.  Underlying the choices we make is the respects we hold.  I often refer to my children as children with autism, autistic children, autistic or even, though I try not to, Silly Willy.  According to political correctness, this is wrong; yet my regard for my children does not change.  Recently, Dave Hingsburger of Rolling Around in My Head wrote a post about the language we use.  There are some words and phrases that are truly offensive.  However, most terms can be used with respect.  Disability is not an ugly word, nor is it an ugly state of being.  It is only ugly when we have no respect for those who are disabled.

The language of inclusion is less about the words we choose and more about what we mean when they use them.  If you think an autistic person is worthless, it does not matter that you use people-first language.  You can call autistics “people with autism” all you like, but if “autism” means “inferior” to you, then everything else you say and do is going to communicate your prejudice loudly and clearly no matter how politically correct you are.

The Transition

The language of inclusion is not about political correctness or the façade of tolerance.  It’s about genuine respect.  You can’t fake it.  But you can shape it by making new choices for new reasons.  It can be shaped within a culture by people who use words with respect.  In order to make this transition, you need to incorporate respect into the culture of your business.  It’s not just about the words you use, but the ideas and beliefs you express.  This respect must come from a force within that organization, and it must be disseminated throughout the organization.  Respect diverse workers.  Respect diverse partners, suppliers, and customers.  Respect the diverse world we live in.  Inclusive language will naturally follow.