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CSUN Center Reads Signs for a New Barbie Doll

June 14, 2000|ALLISON COHEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She has those long legs, impossibly tiny waist and a trendy powder blue sweater twin set to match her eyes. But this Barbie is different. Check out the hands. They're saying, "I love you."

Thanks to a trio of staff members at the National Center on Deafness at Cal State Northridge, Barbie can add sign language teacher to her resume, along with presidential candidate, NASCAR racer and country-western singer.

Of the hundreds of variations of Barbie since the icon was introduced in 1959--including "Share a Smile Becky," a wheelchair-bound friend of Barbie's from 1997--this is the first time Barbie herself has ventured into the world of disabilities, Mattel executives say.

"We like Barbie to be relevant and realistic. Some children have handicaps. . . . We want to show it's OK," said Debbie Haag, a senior product manager handling the Barbie brand.

Staff members from the deafness center said they were surprised to receive a call from the El Segundo-based toy-maker last year asking for help with the doll's development. After an initial meeting and a promise of confidentiality until the doll was launched in April, the deafness center signed on.

"I was so thrilled," said Dr. Merri Pearson, director of the National Center on Deafness. "This is an opportunity for increased familiarity between two cultures--the hearing world and the deaf world."

Center consultants and Mattel considered a number of options, including a deaf Barbie with two hearing aids. Barbie as sign language teacher was chosen because Mattel executives believed it would have the best crossover appeal among hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing girls.

Mattel is reporting initial "skyrocketing" sales, especially from die-hard Barbie collectors. Company officials say they have received positive feedback from the deaf and hard-of-hearing. The doll, including an African American version, is available only at Toys R Us.

Tony Ivankovic, a deaf father of three hearing children, said his 6- and 8-year-old daughters have given the new Barbie to their hearing friends as birthday gifts.

"Their friends will now come up to me and sign," said Ivankovic, who works as a resource specialist with the National Center on Deafness.

For Sign Language Barbie, the familiar shocking pink packaging shows illustrations on how to finger-spell B-A-R-B-I-E. Inside are a white board and 24 reusable stickers showing how to sign words such as flowers, ice cream, cat, kiss and boy.

"[Signing] is another language skill," Pearson said. "The kids will never lose it."

Mattel came up with the idea about 1 1/2 years ago to update Barbie and make her more relevant.

The collaboration marks the first time the deafness center has assisted in the development of a consumer product. Usually, Pearson and staff members provide interpreting services for the campus' nearly 300 deaf and hard-of-hearing students, the largest such campus in the western United States. The center also consults with other colleges and universities on serving their deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Mattel provided CSUN a $2,000 scholarship for a female deaf student for the upcoming year.

The toy maker may also be considering developing other dolls with handicaps, Haag said.

"I can only hope there is enough profit," Pearson said, "that toy makers will continue. . . . This is a natural."

KUDOS

Silver Medalists: Burbank's John Burroughs High School took the overall silver medal at the Odyssey of the Mind world finals on June 3 in Knoxville, Tenn. The team made up of graduating seniors has won the Los Angeles regional competition six consecutive years and the state competition in 1996.

Founded in 1978, Odyssey of the Mind is a problem-solving competition for kindergarten through college students. Teams work to problem-solve spontaneously and over longer periods of time using imagination, ingenuity and limited funds.

The John Burroughs team impressed the judges over other teams from the United States, China, Germany, Japan and Slovakia, to name a few.

Raising Funds: The senior class at West Hills' Chaminade College Preparatory High School donated $3,000 to the American Cancer Society last week. Students raised the money from a clothing sale and chose the charity because of the number of students whose families have been directly affected by cancer.

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Class Notes appears every Wednesday. Send news about schools to the Valley Edition, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Or fax it to (818) 772-3338.

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