The work a 10-year-old Pennsylvania girl is doing now may lead to the creation of the first American Girl doll featuring a disability.
Melissa Shang has a progressive and currently incurable disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, which affects the nerves outside the brain and spiral cord, according to the National Institutes of Health. This causes weakness and numbness in the legs and feet, loss of muscle in the lower legs, and difficulty with balance.
Shang is also a big fan of American Girl, a collectible line of dolls that represent a variety of ethnicities. Each doll comes packaged with a book that details its backstory.
Shang tells the story of how much the dolls mean to her in an online petition that asks American Girl to consider creating a doll with a disability, so little girls like her can see themselves in a brand-new way.
The petition, which has amassed more than 112,000 signatures since its creation December 27 on change.org, includes Shang's letter to Jean McKenzie, the president of American Girl and the executive vice-president of Mattel.
"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," Shang says in the letter. "Disabled girls are American girls too. They have the same thoughts and feelings, and deserve to have their stories told."
Shang composed the letter and set up the petition with the help of her 17-year-old sister, Eva Shang. The older girl, a Harvard student, decided to take action after an early morning conversation with Melissa Shang about American Girls' new Girl of the Year doll. The company releases one doll annually that has its own, unique story about facing a challenge in life and overcoming it. American Girls' 2014 Girl of the Year doll is a stylish, blonde-haired dancer named Isabelle Palmer.
"She [Melissa Shang] came to me around Christmas, after seeing leaked photos of the new Girl of the Year doll," Eva Shang told HLN. "She was disappointed that it was a dancer, because she felt that while their dolls represent many types of stories, hers was not one of them."
American Girl responded to the petition on January 3 with a statement, saying, "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 ... 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."
HLN reached out to American Girl, but the company declined to comment beyond the statement above.
Eva Shang says that, thanks to the response the petition has gotten, her younger sister is really hopeful that American Girl will hear her.
"I think that she has the kind of faith in them that only a 10-year-old girl can have. She could be heartbroken if they don't reply. I was hoping she would read the comments on the petition and that people's support would make her feel good," Eva Shang said.
She also told HLN that the petition is about much more than manufacturing a doll in a wheelchair.
"What makes girls love American Girl is that it's not just a doll. It comes with a story," Eva Shang said. "It's compelling to Melissa because her own story is so unique. So what we are really campaigning for is that her story be told."