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A doll that teaches diversity

Social enterprise Ginny’s Planet is trying to spread awareness about disability through a unique doll

Ginny is part of a holistic package that includes books with stories based on her life.
Ginny is part of a holistic package that includes books with stories based on her life.

A year ago, when Jamal Siddiqui and Shweta Verma founded Ginny’s Planet Pvt. Ltd, a Delhi-based social enterprise, their mission statement was simple: “We aim to build a planet where no one is considered the odd-one-out on the basis of differences." The husband-wife team, with a four-year-old son born with congenital conditions, including a radial club hand, was determined to remove the stigma around disability. “It was a tipping point for us," Siddiqui says on the phone, referring to the barrage of questions and ignorant remarks they had heard in their social circle till then.

Initially, Siddiqui, whose expertise is in public health, and Verma, a disability activist and mental health professional, considered using their nearly two-decade-long experience in the social sector to train teachers and parents. But to achieve this effectively, they needed a tool, one that would, through nuanced messaging, make children understand the reality of living with difference and disability. They found their answer in a doll they named Ginny—a little girl made of cloth, with two plaits, thick glasses and a radial club hand, priced at 999.

Dolls with disabilities are not common, though last year Mattel introduced two Barbie dolls with disabilities—one in a wheelchair, the other with a removable prosthetic leg. A departure from the company’s signature style of Barbie dolls with unrealistic standards of beauty and body types, the move was greeted with mixed responses. Critics pointed out that Barbie already had a friend called Becky in the 1990s who was also bound to a wheelchair. But Mattel did not take the trouble of customizing its dolls’ house to accommodate Becky. Her wheelchair would not pass through the door, for instance. So, in spite of Mattel’s intentions, Becky stopped selling. No wonder the latest addition of Barbies with disability was suspected to be a token nod to diversity.

In contrast, Ginny’s Planet offers a holistic package called the Empathy Box, which not only includes the doll but also books that tell stories based on her life. “Our four-member team, which includes a diversity trainer with disabilities, felt we should have activities that children can take part in as they play with the Ginny doll," Siddiqui says. The narratives are structured around everyday activities, like Ginny learning to polish her shoes or water the plants. The purpose of these tales is to raise, as well as answer, questions such as: “What is her everyday life like? What kind of mistakes does she make and learn from? How is she questioning, absorbing, and dealing with things around her? Who are her friends?" as a statement on the company’s website puts it.

At first, the plan was to create a gender-neutral doll but the difficulty of weaving credible narratives around such a character swayed the vote in favour of Ginny. “A year on, we want to expand Ginny’s circle with other characters, who may or may not have disabilities," Siddiqui says. “Our next doll will be a boy with vitiligo." Like Ginny, this doll will also be made by women from self-help groups across Delhi; this is part of the company’s social enterprise agenda.

So far, Ginny’s Planet has conducted workshops with roughly 1,000 individuals to raise awareness about disability and diversity. From children and parents to teachers and social workers, corporate employees and NGO staff—their clientele covers a wide spectrum. While it is still baby steps for the company, big ideas often lurk in corners where you least expect them.

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