For as long as she can remember, 10-year-old Melissa Shang has battled Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a form of muscular dystrophy. The incurable genetic disease damages nerves — causing debilitating muscle weakness and numbness — and requires Melissa to use a wheelchair or walker to get around.

When she was 7, Melissa fell in love with American Girl dolls, the pricey must-have toy of young girls from coast to coast and beyond. She cajoles her college-student sister to play dolls with her on trips home. The dolls and their accessories top every birthday and Christmas wish list.

But most of all, Melissa loves the dolls’ tales of overcoming obstacles. In books and movies, modern American Girls face reading difficulties, bullying and other challenges, while historical dolls tangle with troubles arising from slavery to war to the Great Depression.

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The dolls haven’t, though, ever had to deal with a life-altering disability like Melissa’s.

Now, Melissa is hoping to change that. The Philadelphia-area fifth-grader, and her sister, YingYing, 17, have started a petition on to urge the Wisconsin-based American Girl company to make its 2015 Girl of the Year doll a character with a disability.

“For once, I don’t want to be invisible or a side character that the main American Girl has to help: I want other girls to know what it’s like to be me, through a disabled American Girl’s story,” Melissa wrote on her petition.

“Disabled girls might be different from normal kids on the outside. They might sit in a wheelchair like I do, or have some other difficulty that other kids don’t have. However, we are the same as other girls on the inside, with the same thoughts and feelings. American Girls are supposed to represent all the girls that make up American history, past and present. That includes disabled girls.”

YingYing posted the petition Dec. 28 and it now has more than 60,000 signatures.

American Girl couldn’t be reached for comment because its corporate offices were closed for the holidays. The company does sell a wheelchair, crutches and related “get-well” accessories, but they don’t come with a story and “assume that the doll is injured, that her disability is not a permanent thing. That’s still not quite enough,” YingYing said.

The sisters’ crusade came about after a conversation they had about American Girl’s Girl of the Year doll for 2014, a blond ballerina named Isabelle, YingYing said.

“My sister was like, ‘Wow, another blond girl who’s a dancer,'” YingYing said. “So we started talking about who she wanted to see in an American Girl.”

Melissa wanted to see someone like herself.

“I learned what it was like to be a horseback rider and a gymnast from reading about [American Girl dolls] Saige and McKenna. But I want other kids to understand what it’s like to be a disabled girl,” Melissa said.

On one hand, girls with disabilities are like any other girl, said Melissa, who has a sweet singing voice and dreams of becoming a music teacher. But her disabilities create challenges unimaginable for many, she said.

For example, her teacher kept her from going on a school field trip to a farm last fall, worried about her safety. And Melissa spends recess talking with friends on the edges of the playground, while her classmates jump rope, play hopscotch or swing across the monkey bars.

“Muscular dystrophy prevents activities for me that other people take for granted, like running and ice-skating,” she said.

The girls decided to draft a petition to crusade for a doll with a disability because they were inspired by McKenna Pope, the 12-year-old New Jersey girl who petitioned Hasbro to make a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven for her little brother. That December 2012 petition garnered more than 45,000 signatures.

YingYing said she’s thrilled by the overwhelming support their petition has gotten so far.

“I think this resounds with people because people with disabilities are more prevalent than depicted in mainstream media,” said YingYing, a Harvard University freshman. “People live with disabilities every day, visible and invisible, and they don’t feel represented. American Girl has been so accepting and diverse so far. It’s just a shame that they’re missing this.”

If American Girl listens, Melissa has a few ideas for names: “Angela or Heather. Those are my favorite names,” she said.

What about Melissa?

“That would be cool, too,” she said.

© 2013 the Philadelphia Daily News
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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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