"I want other girls to understand what it's like to be me," she tells Yahoo Shine, explaining the impetus behind her effort — a joint one between herself and her supportive sister, 17-year-old YingYing. While American Girl does sell wheelchairs, crutches, and hearing aids for its dolls, Melissa was hoping for a doll with a story.
"She was really disappointed," YingYing tells Yahoo Shine about when Melissa saw leaked photos of Isabelle on an Instagram American Girl doll fan community. "Nothing against blond dancers, but they've already had two dancers, so that story has been told already." YingYing, a Harvard freshman and youth activist, then asked Melissa what sort of American Girl doll she would like to see. "She said there weren't any disabled ones," recounts YingYing, "and that she'd emailed American Girl about it before but had never gotten a response."
That's when the sisters decided to petition Mattel — specifically Jean McKenzie, president of American Girl — and when Melissa made an accompanying YouTube video to further plead her case. "I've read all of the American Girl books and seen all the movies, and I'm ready for an American Girl who looks like me," she says in the video while sitting in front of her family Christmas tree and holding one of her American Girl dolls, Saige. "Disabled girls are American girls, too. We face challenges and overcome them every day."
American Girl released a statement to Yahoo Shine regarding Melissa's plea. "We appreciate the enthusiasm and trust our fans have in us to create products and stories that speak to diversity and inclusion, and we applaud Melissa Shang for her amazing spirit and positive attitude," it reads. "American Girl is proud of its positive reputation for inclusiveness, and it is an important area in which we remain committed to exploring and expanding. We receive hundreds of passionate requests to create a variety of dolls and books based on a wide range of circumstances, and we are always considering new ways to enhance our product lines."
Melissa's idea makes a lot of sense, according to Paula Goldberg, executive director and co-founder of Pacer Center, a national training and support center for parents of children with disabilities. "I believe it's important for children to see role models, whether through adults or through toys. We've moved forward in terms of acceptance and understanding of people with disabilities, but we have a long way to go," she says. "It's surprising, if you think about it, that American Girl doesn't have a doll with a disability already."
In her petition, Melissa explains that she has a form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth and that she is confined to a wheelchair. "However, we are the same as other girls on the inside, with the same thoughts and feelings," she writes. "American Girls are supposed to represent all the girls that make up American history, past and present." She also notes that the Girl of the Year dolls — introduced annually, along with their stories about overcoming challenges and finding success — are her favorites because of what they teach. "Through Saige, I learned what it's like to be an artist and horseback rider," she states on Change.org. "Through McKenna, I learned what it's like to be a gymnast. Girls of the Year have helped me understand how it feels to be someone else." The next Girl of the Year could teach her own lesson, Melissa notes in her petition: "Please, American Girl, release a Girl of the Year for 2015 who is in a wheelchair, so that all girls can learn about the difficulty of being born with a disability."
And Melissa says kids with disabilities won't be the only ones who will relate to the doll she's hoping for. "Sometimes on the playground, other girls will be doing the monkey bars or running or doing things that I can't do, and I feel lonely," she tells Yahoo Shine. "And loneliness is something that everyone can understand."
About the petition, she adds excitedly, "I feel like this is really going to work."