Take Note

July 12, 2000 1 min read

She has played every role from a sun-loving teenager in a bikini to a presidential candidate, but now Barbie is setting aside haute couture and dates with Ken for a turn in the classroom as a sign language teacher.

Dressed in a blue sweater set and plaid miniskirt, Sign Language Barbie is the product of a creative partnership between the toy company Mattel Inc. and the National Center on Deafness at California State University’s Northridge campus.

Mattel estimates that more than 1 billion Barbies and related dolls have been sold since 1959. But according to the deafness center, this is Barbie’s first foray into the world of people with disabilities.

“We kicked around a lot of ideas,” said the organization’s director, Merri Pearson, who led the trio of university staff members that helped design Sign Language Barbie. “The sign-language-teacher concept came from a discussion of what little girls at the elementary school level like. Most little girls like teachers, and they also like secret languages and codes.”

For her latest career, Barbie is packaged in a schoolroom setting with a chalkboard and two- dozen stickers depicting various phrases in sign language.

Her hand is molded to sign the phrase “I love you.” The back of each doll’s box also offers an explanation of sign language, includes the finger-spelling signs for each letter of the alphabet, and shows how to finger-sign the world “Barbie.”

But it will be up to the individual owners to decide whether Barbie is a deaf or hearing teacher.

“I believe most toys can be educational, and I believe this one in particular can be very positive,” Ms. Pearson said.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week