Chandler woman sees big market for ‘disabled dolls’ The Chandler Arizonan

Chandler woman sees big market for ‘disabled dolls’

Chandler woman sees big market for ‘disabled dolls’
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By Kevin Reagan

Arizonan Staff Writer

 

Rachel Leland’s handmade stuffed animals don’t look like regular toys. 

Some are missing limbs. Some have insulin pumps. Some are hooked up to oxygen tanks. 

Over the years, Leland’s made a plush monkey with cochlear implants and a stuffed moose with a tracheotomy tube in its throat.

The dolls are meant to normalize all the disabilities and ailments millions of people live with every day, Leland said – and help eliminate the stigma often associated with them. 

As soon as the 28-year-old Chandler resident started crocheting her handicapped dolls a few years ago, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. 

Parents sent her heartfelt notes, thanking Leland for producing a toy matching their child’s appearance.   

“It made me feel so good to see the child holding the animal looking like them,” Leland said.

She quickly realized there was probably a market out there for people who often feel underrepresented in the media and popular culture. 

“You want to see someone who looks like you,” Leland said, “you want to have representation.”

She started getting requests from around the world for dolls with specific disabilities and did her best to stitch elephants with intravenous tubes or penguins in wheelchairs.  

The demand for Leland’s dolls eventually started to outpace supply and she put a hold on the operation after getting a speech pathologist job at a San Tan Valley school. 

Each doll took between 10 and 20 hours to knit, she said, and Leland simply didn’t have time to devote to the hobby anymore.

But she’s recently partnered with someone hoping to help Leland bring the dolls back into production.  

Shanna Israel, a professional artist from Scottsdale, has years of marketing experience working with big corporations like Target and Nike.

She knows how to creatively sell a product and thinks Leland’s dolls are capable of finding a bigger audience. 

After coming across Leland’s life story, Israel said she was instantly motivated to help the Chandler woman promote her unique idea. 

“It was really meaningful for me to figure out a way to viably take this that she’s created and help shed light and share light to so many other people around the world and try to make a real, viable business out of this,” Israel said.

Both women have struggled with health problems for several years and can empathize with the people who have bought Leland’s dolls. 

Leland was diagnosed with Lyme disease as a teenager and spent most of her adolescence confined to a wheelchair. 

Exposure to black mold during college further hindered Leland’s health, requiring her to detoxify for several months at home. 

During these bouts with illness, Leland pursued creative endeavors and taught herself how to crochet stuffed animals. 

She started with a bunny rabbit and secretly wondered what it might look like without one of its limbs.

“I had no idea why I was doing it,” she recalled, “but I was bored and I just wanted to see if I could do it.”

Israel said she’s seen at least 100 doctors during a 15-year period for thyroid disease, West Nile Virus, and trauma sustained from a near-fatal car accident. 

Dealing with chronic health problems is a daily struggle, Israel said, and so much of the struggle can be invisible to others. 

These stuffed animals make health struggles more visible to the public, the women said, and can serve as teaching tools for young children who may not understand why their classmates or siblings look differently. 

Leland and Israel said their health is much better now and they wish to spend their time promoting artwork and stories uplifting others. 

The duo is hoping to find a corporate partner willing to merchandise Leland’s dolls and make them available to buy in retail stores.

“I always wanted to be able to have them in children’s hospitals,” Leland added. 

More information on Leland’s dolls can be found at artxshanna.com.

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