Growing up, Emily Paige wasn’t a big fan of dolls. But now they’ve taken over her home and her heart.
Emily Paige and her mother Judy Harrison invented “I Can Sign” dolls. It’s the first doll with posable fingers that children can use to practice sign language. They first got into the hands of children in September 2011, and the pair are still reeling at the impact their creation has made.
“It’s going a lot faster than we thought it was going to go. We knew it was going to be a hit, but we didn’t know the breakthroughs it would have,” said Harrison.
Kids who are too shy to sign with their teacher or a parent will practice with the doll. Parents who don’t know how to teach their deaf children use the doll to make signing less intimidating.
“Deaf children can do absolutely anything that other kids can do. Now there is something just like them,” said Paige.
Getting the dolls out to children who sign was a major ordeal at first. The Lions Club made it possible.
Rob Hartley is a member and a longtime friend of Harrison and her husband Scott Harrison. When he saw the dolls, he made contact with local Lions Clubs across the nation, who were eager to donate the dolls to children with hearing difficulties or other disabilities.
“Any child who signs who needs (a doll), the Lions Club is right there. It’s a huge undertaking they’re doing. Man, I applaud them for it,” said Harrison.
On Valentine’s Day, at least one signing doll was donated to every school for the deaf in the country. Ninety-four dolls were delivered by hand by Lions Club members.
Hartley recounted the story of a 3-year-old named Olivia at Riverside School for the Deaf. The little girl doesn’t use sign language. When Hartley handed her a doll, she asked her teacher how to spell her name. She then “taught” her doll to spell O-L-I-V-I-A.
“All I could think was, ‘Wow, these dolls work,’” said Hartley.
Interest is growing outside of the deaf community. Children with other disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, sometimes find it easier to communicate in sign language than orally.
“We use our hands for everything; we embrace, we hug, we touch. It’s a natural form of communication,” said Paige. These kids, too, bond quickly with the dolls.
One doll takes about five hours to make from start to finish. Paige is still enthralled watching the process.
“It’s amazing to see it go from fabric on a spool to a real doll,” she said.
When Harrison’s hands hurt too much from rheumatoid arthritis to sew the dolls, Paige stepped in to help. Now the project belongs to her just as much as her mother. Dolls have found a permanent place in Paige’s life.
“Nothing’s going to be able to put her fire out now,” said Harrison.
Dolls are customizable from their hair to their optional hearing aids. They come as boys, girls or bunnies. Many schools prefer the bunnies because they are gender-neutral.
Making the dolls one at a time is time consuming and hard to market. The assembly line will soon move out of her mother’s dining room and into a factory. Hartley is working with manufacturers in California to increase production. But the two women aren’t sad to let it go.
“I’m gladly handing over the torch. If somebody can get it further than I can or faster than I can, more power to them,” said Harrison.
The project won’t stop there.
Plans are in motion for a doll hospital, coloring and children’s books with the dolls as characters, and maybe even retail sales.
But future success won’t outshine how Harrison and Paige feel watching children play with the dolls they made. Kids know that these dolls are like them, and can sign their language.
“There’s something magical that happens between a child and a doll. Maybe as parents we lose that, but it’s real,” said Harrison.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.