The Barbie doll has played many roles during 41 years as one of America's most recognizable icons. But if not for educators at Cal State Northridge, the famous doll might not have emerged recently in one of her most unusual turns-as an advocate for the nation's deaf and hard-of-hearing.
Staff members at the university's nationally renowned National Center on Deafness (NCOD) provided essential consulting expertise to help El Segundo-based Mattel Inc. bring the company's new Sign Language Barbie to market in April, a product launch that created a stir in the deaf community.
Although Mattel produces about 150 new Barbie models each year and estimates more than one billion Barbies and related dolls have been sold since 1959, the new Sign Language Barbie represents the first time Barbie herself has ventured into the world of people with disabilities.
NCOD Director Merri Pearson, who led the trio of university staff members who helped shape Sign Language Barbie with Mattel, said the new doll represents one of the most visible and recognizable retail products ever related to the nation's estimated 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing population.
"The deaf community is as excited as can be about this product," said Pearson. "We've had many calls, many e-mails to our web site wanting to know where to get the doll and how the doll was developed. This has increased our exposure to the national marketplace tremendously."
Most of the time, Pearson and her colleagues at the National Center on Deafness focus on providing interpreting and other services to Cal State Northridge's nearly 300 deaf students, the largest such university population in the western United States, and on NCOD's special role as a regional federal center on deaf education.
But more than a year ago, Pearson received a phone call from a Mattel official seeking the NCOD's help in developing a new Barbie doll related to sign language. After signing an agreement promising confidentiality until after the product launch, Pearson and two colleagues began their work.
Starting with virtually a blank slate, Pearson, NCOD Coordinator of Interpreting Services Caroline Preston and NCOD Administrator for Special Projects Jennifer Olson helped Mattel develop Sign Language Barbie into a full product concept-and the new doll was launched in mid-April.
Sign Language Barbie, produced in both Caucasian and African-American versions, is not deaf. Rather, she emerged as a sign language teacher, with a schoolroom setting, a chalkboard and two dozen stickers visually depicting various phrases in sign language. The doll's hand is molded to sign the phrase, "I love you."
"The issue was how would we bring sign language and Barbie together," said Pearson, "and we decided a sign language teacher would be the best way to go." Through the months, Preston ensured the product's various sign language content was accurate, while Olson helped shape the product's concept.
For NCOD's work on the project, Mattel provided a $2,000 scholarship for a deaf woman student at Cal State Northridge for the coming school year, and gave the university and NCOD credit in writing on the back of each Sign Language Barbie box, including a listing of the NCOD's web site: http://ncod.csun.edu.
The credit reads, "Sign Language Barbie doll was developed in consultation with the National Center on Deafness at California State University, Northridge." The back of each box also explains about sign language, shows the finger-spelling signs for each letter of the alphabet and how to finger spell "Barbie."
It has been a busy time for Barbie this spring, with Mattel launching the Sign Language Barbie and a new Barbie for President doll within weeks of each other. Those two new dolls join such prior models as Givenchy Barbie, Angel of Peace Barbie, Los Angeles Dodgers Barbie and NASCAR Barbie, among many others.
The new Sign Language Barbie is aimed at both hearing and non-hearing girls. And Pearson said one of the doll's most important and enduring contributions may be to help break down barriers of communication between the two types of youngsters, and promote better learning among the deaf.
"Young girls like secret codes. I knew that from having taught fourth and fifth grades. Sign language is in a sense a way the two groups can communicate with each other. So I thought little girls would love that," said Pearson, who came to Cal State Northridge from the U.S. Department of Education in early 1999.
"For over 41 years, Barbie has taken on several exciting aspirational roles ranging from astronaut to presidential candidate," added Adrienne Fontanella, Mattel's president for Girls/Barbie.
"But this is the first time Barbie has communicated an ASL [American Sign Language] signing position, and in the role of teacher, she can help to break down barriers and facilitate understanding between children with and without disabilities," Fontanella said.
At present, Sign Language Barbie, dressed in a blue sweater set and plaid mini-skirt, is available only through Toys "R" Us, at the company's nationwide network of stores and on the Internet at http://www.toysrus.com. The company's pricing for the dolls on its web site is $19.99 each.
Meanwhile, Pearson said she hopes the NCOD's partnership with Mattel will launch a new type of role for the specialized deaf services center. "We've always been known for our educational excellence. Now we're becoming known for our consultative potential," Pearson said.
Public Affairs Offices/Campus News