Rose Ayling-Ellis and Barbie's first ever doll with behind-the-ear hearing aids. (Photo: Simon WebbPA)
Most people will know Barbie for its iconic if divisive ‘blonde bombshell’ doll. But in recent years, her owner Mattel has been branching out from Barbie’s trademark long locks, skinny waist and high heels to a wider range of dolls that represent other body types and lives.
Ayling-Ellis, 27, the first deaf contestant to compete in and win Strictly Come Dancing in 2021 said of the launch: “It’s so important for children to be able to see themselves represented in the toys they play with.”
She added: “When I was little, I would draw hearing aids on my Barbie dolls to make them look like me, so I’m thrilled that Mattel is releasing more dolls that encourage kids to celebrate and embrace their differences.”
Many in the deaf community have welcomed her new doll. Instagram user @ooneybop responded directly to Ayling-Ellis: “This is amazing! When I had my first hearing aid, my mum made my teddies little cardboard hearing aids so I felt less lonely. It’s so important that toys are more inclusive.”
Another follower @celebratebsl added: “I, too, said my dolls were deaf when I was little (which was a long time ago) and see so many deaf children who are ashamed of their hearing aids. This will go a long way towards normalising deafness as part of a diverse society.”
And @Trettjoanna shared: “I was embarrassed when I had to start wearing hearing aids & used to cover up with my hair. Such a positive step forward.”
As well as working with Ayling-Ellis, Mattel consulted on the new Barbie with audiologist Dr Jenny Richardson, founder of the Hearing Milestones Foundation, who said she was “honoured” to work to accurately portray hearing aids.
The Fashionistas collection also includes a Ken doll with the skin condition vitiligo, and two more Barbies, one in a wheelchair, and another with a prosthetic leg.
Rose Ayling-Ellis and the rest of the Fashionistas collection. (Photo: Simon WebbPA)
The visibility of deafness in pop culture has been expanding, with celebrities like Ayling-Ellis applauded for giving confidence to other deaf people who may be afraid of being judged – or overlooked.
Together with her professional Strictly partner Giovanni Pernice, Ayling-Ellis won the Audience award for Must-See TV Moment of the year at this year’s Baftas for their show dance to Clean Bandit’s Symphony – which included a section performed in complete silence to communicate her experience of the world.
And since their Strictly series, British Sign Language (BSL) has been recognised as an official language, a win for the hard work of charities and campaigners over years. Pernice also made many of his recent UK shows BSL-interpreted.
Other recent TV representation includes this year’s Love Island series on ITV2, which introduced its first deaf contestant, model Tasha Ghouri, who wears a cochlear implant, designed to give someone with moderate to profound hearing loss extra sound perception.
In an interview with O’Dell for the Limping Chicken blog, Ayling Ellis said she hoped toy makers would now represent a “range of Deaf people”, including different races, cochlear implant users, deaf people with disabilities and BSL signers.
And Barbie isn’t the first to go there – O’Dell shouted out the Toy Like Me campaign, launched by deaf writer Rebecca Atkinson, which made a Deaf Tinkerbell with a pink cochlear implant in 2015.
Bev Carter, senior hearing aid audiologist at Hearing Direct, said younger generations would see the positive impact of the Barbie collaboration.
“Hearing loss is often invisible and underrepresented, but mainstream media and culture is helping to raise awareness of the different challenges, open up conversations, remove stigmas, and also make the world around us more inclusive,” she said.
“I would urge anyone who thinks they might be experiencing a change in their hearing to book a test as soon as possible. There are so many solutions out there now that can help everyone dealing with all levels of hearing loss.
“You can even book free initial hearing checks online, so there’s never been an easier time to take those important first steps.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.