A few minutes before our 9:30 a.m. appointment, I launched Google Meet and turned on the camera. My friend — a ridiculously beautiful blonde with big blue eyes and a perfect smile — sat in her current wheelchair, an ultralight with a purple frame. For clinic, she was dressed in a fuchsia one-shouldered top and a purple denim skirt that matched her chair.
Right on time, the seating clinician — Lauren Rosen, PT, MPT, MSMS, ATP/SMS — joined us from her office in Florida, where she’s Program Coordinator at the Motion Analysis Center, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital of Tampa.
As my friend Barbie and I were in California, Lauren was going to do a “telehealth evaluation” with us.
Doing the prep work
I sent photos of Barbie and her chair, as well as Barbie’s personal information, to Lauren ahead of time.
The client’s full name: Barbara Millicent Roberts. Age: perpetually 19. Occupation: originally a teen fashion model, but these days, a veterinarian, elite athlete, judge, student, President of the United States, flight attendant, teacher, UNICEF ambassador, dentist, etc.
If we were to scale 11.5-inch Barbie to real-world dimensions, as students at Chapman University in my hometown of Orange, Calif., did, Barbie would be 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weigh 110 lbs. Her bust would be 39 inches, her waist 18 inches, her hips 33 inches. Somehow, she’d wear a size 3 women’s shoe.
Barbie’s current chair is a rigid. The seating is not adjustable (and there appears to be no seat slope). There are no anti-tips. It’s tough to keep her feet on the adjustable footplate unless her feet are in plantar flexion. The chair has an extremely low back, well below her waist.
Mattel, Barbie’s parent company, includes a translucent brace to keep Barbie seated in the chair as the chair moves (yes, all four wheels roll). In the brace, Barbie is seated far forward on the “cushion”; her back doesn’t come close to touching the backrest.
Barbie has articulated knees, elbows, wrists, shoulders, and ankles, but her range of motion is limited. She cannot bend forward at the waist. Her elbows bend enough to create a 90-degree angle between forearm and upper arm. Like illustrations in old seating textbooks, Barbie’s a 90-90-90 kind of girl.
The assessment begins
While I don’t have a medical history to explain why Barbie uses a wheelchair, I ventured to Lauren that the chair and its configuration suggest Barbie is paraplegic.
Lauren has a large collection of Barbies in wheelchairs, so she examined her own Barbies (still in their original packaging) while also looking at my out-of-packaging Barbie I held up to the camera. “I would think so, to do that style of chair,” Lauren said of my paraplegia suggestion. “Yes, she’s got to be a para. That chair indicates a para or a quad [quadriplegic] who’s got a back that’s too low.”
I added that the seat looks too wide.
“The seat width is obviously awful,” Lauren said. “It’s way too wide. If you see the picture of her from behind, where you’ve got her arms out, you can see how much she has to abduct to get to the tires, and that’s ridiculous. She’s definitely sliding in the [seating] system as she pushes, if she could push and move herself at all.”
Lauren said the seat depth is okay, but adds, “What concerns me is she needs more seat slope. That seat is way too flat, and she’d be just falling right out the front of the chair.
“The axle position is not as bad as it could be. The center of gravity needs to go forward probably an inch. I see a lot of people in my office with way worse center of gravity than what she’s got. She’s probably a little bit low on that wheel, even though she looks like she’s a little high, just because of the proportion of her arm length to her torso.”
Lauren examined a photo I took from the side, where Barbie has her left hand resting near the handrim. “Her flexion is not terrible. It’s just if she were to be at the top of the rim, that’s a little too much elbow flexion, if you [pose] her starting the push at the top of the rim.”
Not a living doll
Barbie’s body measurements are not realistic. The Chapman University report noted that a 110-lb. Barbie would have a body mass index of 16.2, very significantly underweight. “If Barbie was a real woman, she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions,” the report said.
Lauren noted those unrealistic measurements while looking at the photo of Barbie taken from behind the chair. “That waist size is a little disproportionate,” she said. “This [seating] is way too big for her hips. So, we’ve got a rotator cuff tear [risk] and some elbow issues. Probably some neck issues coming from that chair.”
And while we don’t know Barbie’s diagnosis, Lauren is concerned about that aggressively low back height.
“The older I get, the more I know that we should be making our backs taller,” she said. “But of course, we’re having to deal with the reality that ‘The lower your back, the cooler you are.’
“You have to possibly have an L1 [spinal cord injury] to have a back that low, and it’s still not that comfortable. This is going to lead to development of scoliosis after she uses that for 20 years, because that’s what I see in my friends who are quads. The lower your back, the cooler you are — that is part of the culture, and everyone has that low back until all of a sudden they’ve wondering, ‘Where did I get this scoliosis?’ Because of your back support, and you had no trunk [strength]. We need to get [the backrest height] as close to your injury level as we can.”
Though adding camber can sometimes make it difficult to get a wheelchair through doorways, Lauren said Barbie’s narrow wheelchair shouldn’t have that problem. “I would have her in two to four degrees of camber,” Lauren nodded. “She could still get through doorways.”
The original Barbie franchise doll who had a wheelchair — “Share a Smile” Becky, launched in 1997 and described as Barbie’s “new friend” — could not fit her chair through the doorways or elevator of Barbie’s coveted DreamHouse … which, anecdotally, is said to have led to Becky’s discontinuation. Today’s Barbie wheelchair rider can access the DreamHouse.
A chair to fit Barbie’s lifestyle
“I would give her some seat slope, but I’d move those wheels forward,” Lauren said, addressing handrim access. “I would definitely change that footplate; it’s got to be higher.”
Then, Lauren paused to consider Barbie’s lifestyle.
“As active as Barbie is, I would probably have done a chair with some taper in the front, so you saw a little less chair,” she said. “That also would give her a little less room to get windswept with those legs. And I definitely would give her side guards, because all we need is for Barbie to ruin all of her outfits.”
I pointed out the working wheel locks. “They are scissor locks,” Lauren said approvingly. “They do get out of the way, so that’s impressive. [Mattel] actually did a scissor lock and not a push lock, which is what most chairs come with. So they did give her that little up-charge feature.”
She again checked out one of her Barbies. “My Fashionista Barbie has a fairly decent lumbar lordosis,” Lauren said. “That’s all the more reason to have a taller back — to get support, because that’s going to cause back pain, especially since we think she’s got to be a low[-level spinal cord] injury. She’s probably got sensation in that region. And that’ll cause back pain.”
Lauren noted that the chair’s casters roll but don’t turn, so the wheelchair only moves straight ahead. Additionally, the wheels don’t come off, and the back doesn’t fold down. This chair would be a pain to transport in Barbie’s signature pink convertible.
“Yeah,” Lauren agreed. “I think she’s going to have to have a van for that particular frame.”
But is Lauren happy that Barbie is in a rigid rather than a folding chair?
“Yes,” Lauren said. “Of course, I am.”
Applause for Mattel
Tongue-in-cheek seating assessment aside, Lauren added, “Truthfully, Mattel has done a great job.”
She listed other Barbies with disabilities: “I have an amputee Barbie that I could give away to one of my kids who’s got a lower-extremity prosthesis. Somebody gave me a Barbie with hearing aids that I gave to my audiologist. Then somebody else just got a bald Barbie that I gave to one of my therapists. I had been talking to a therapist who was treating a kid who was having chemo, and I was like , ‘Wait, does she have a bald head? Yes? I have the Barbie for you!”
Mattel, Lauren said, has “really come into their own with accessible dolls, looking at multiple disabilities and including them. Play is how kids figure out what they can be, what they want to be, and how to do things in life. So the more toys and dolls and ways these kids have to show them that they can do anything they want to do — I think it’s great.”
Lauren added that Mattel did its homework for this iteration of Barbie the wheelchair rider. “I probably would have gone with a single-tube wheelchair instead of a dual. But it’s a self-propelled chair. It’s got spoked wheels, not mags. That’s big.”
And the fact that this Barbie comes with a portable ramp? “That’s nice. So she’s going someplace else, and if it’s not fully accessible, she can still get in. People will have a hard time helping her up an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] ramp, since she doesn’t have push handles on the back [of her chair]. But I think this meets 95 percent of what I want a doll who uses a wheelchair to look like.”
The representation is critical, Lauren said, because so many kids who use wheelchairs don’t know any peers in chairs. “This exists, and it just says, ‘If Barbie can use a wheelchair, I can too.’ And Barbie does everything. She’s an astronaut, a doctor. This woman is all of those things. ‘If Barbie can do all of that, and she uses wheelchair, I can do anything.’”
I know Lauren gives toys, including Barbies in wheelchairs, to her seating clinic kids. After this story, I’d planned to donate my Barbie and her photo shoot wardrobe — including a green handbag that suggests Barbie is an OT in the U.K. — to Lauren’s clinic toy box. But after a few weeks with Barbie, I was finding it hard to let her go.
I instead mailed Lauren a new Barbie-with-wheelchair for her toy bin.
“When I say, ‘Do you have a Barbie and wheelchair at home?’ and they say no, I say, ‘Would you want one?’” Lauren noted. “I’ve had parents crying, they’re so excited to have it. With one of the last ones I gave out, the little girl wanted to open the box. And her mom was like, ‘This is too important. It’s staying in the box.’”