Joss Kendrick, American Girl’s Girl of the Year™ 2020, is the first deaf American girl doll. She wears a hearing aid.
The American Girl doll company has a 33-year history of diversity and inclusion. Their dolls come from a variety of ethnicities, time periods of origin, faiths, and social classes, and are available in different skin tones, hair and eye colors. There are even dolls without hair.
“American Girl is always thinking about how our characters can reflect and resonate with a wide range of girls,” says Julie Parks, American Girl spokesperson.
Since 2012, American Girl has offered a variety of accessories to their dolls, including hearing aids, a service-dog set, glasses, and a wheelchair. But Joss Kendrick is the first American Girl doll with a story that includes hearing loss.
“Having a character with a disability is something we know girls and moms were interested in reading about,” says Parks. “Hearing loss is one of the most common. Fifteen percent of children between ages 6-19 [have] measurable hearing loss in at least one ear. We’re proud to introduce Joss to fans. We hope her story will help broaden understanding and respect for people’s differences, as well as spark conversations around hearing loss.”
American Girl says it was important to them to get Joss’s story right. The 10-year-old is a surfer and competitive cheerleader from Huntington Beach, California. She also has two older brothers and a pet bulldog.
“Joss is athletic, independent, and confident on the waves,” according to American Girl. “She loves to leave her hearing aid behind on her beach towel so she can tune out her trash-talking brother Dylan and focus on mastering her next big trick. So when he dares Joss to try out for cheerleading, she thinks, ‘How hard can it be?'”
Each American Girl doll is sold with an accompanying book told from her viewpoint. Joss has a second book that can be purchased separately. To ensure accuracy, American Girl consulted with various experts. Crystal DaSilva, the women’s shortboard champion at the 2009 biannual World Deaf Surfing Championship, is listed as one of them. Jennifer Richardson, an educational audiologist, is another.
“American Girl consulted with various experts. Crystal DaSilva, the women’s shortboard champion at the 2009 biannual World Deaf Surfing Championship, is listed as one of them.”
One of the parents of a student Richardson works with is an editor at American Girl, she says. She contacted Richardson when they started working on Joss Kendrick to see if Richardson would be willing to join their team of advisors to aid in Joss’s character development and storyline. Joss’s persona was already in place when Richardson came on board.
“I provided American Girl suggestions during the book writing process as it relates to hearing loss, hearing aid technology, and ways Joss could advocate for herself,” says Richardson. “I also provided insight into the design of the hearing aid.”
Richardson also says she read all the manuscripts for Joss. There were several contributors and a lot of thought was put into her story, she says.
“Joss’s hearing loss is a part of who she is, just as surfing and cheerleading are a part of her,” Richardson says. “We all face challenges throughout life – some of those can be seen and some are not. I love that Joss has such a positive approach to life and how determined she is to achieve her dreams. She’s not afraid to put herself out there – she isn’t limited by her hearing loss; it’s just a part of who she is.”
“She’s not afraid to put herself out there – she isn’t limited by her hearing loss; it’s just a part of who she is.”
In the story, Joss has congenital hearing loss. She was born deaf (no hearing) in her left ear, but can hear some with her right ear thanks to a hearing aid. “Partially deaf” therefore is the best description for her hearing loss.
“We know that hearing loss profiles very dramatically for each individual and there are many variations that could have been selected,” says Parks. “One of our goals was to provide a realistic scenario that could resonate with a wide range of girls with different hearing loss profiles. We have Joss using a hearing aid for the right ear, plus we have her using some ASL in the stories. We wanted to portray that she has the ability to hear and speak, but also relies on ASL at times.”
Another reason the behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aid with an earmold was chosen is that it’s the most common in kids, Parks says.
“Because we also want our Joss doll to mirror the Joss character in the book as closely as we can, the BTE hearing aid was the best choice for us from a doll design perspective,” says Parks. “We actually designed the Joss doll’s ear a little differently to accommodate her hearing aid and give girls the ability to remove and replace it.”
It might seem a little incongruous for Joss to be a surfer. It’s very clear in the stories, however, that she removes her hearing aid to surf. And surfing, particularly women’s surfing, is a sport that’s gaining a lot of traction and visibility. In 2018, California mandated that male and female surf competitors should receive equal prize money – a major breakthrough in women’s sports, Parks says. Surfing will also be included for the first time in the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics.
“The timing for Joss’s story is hitting at a truly significant time for the sport,” says Parks. “We love that Joss is portrayed as this fierce athlete who loves the solo sport of surfing and grows to love the team aspect of competitive cheer. Her hearing loss doesn’t stop her from participating in these two extreme sports. The author uses the different environments (a noisy gym with teammates vs. the ocean on her surfboard) to show readers how Joss has to learn to navigate these worlds differently because of it. We believe Joss demonstrates a positive approach to living your best life with a disability – and teaches others to celebrate it, too. We hope this message is shared widely and enthusiastically with all our fans.”
In the first book, entitled “Joss,” written by Erin Falligant, Joss’s hearing loss isn’t mentioned until page six. This is a subtle way of reinforcing the message that her deafness is just part of her identity. When Joss meets her new cheerleading teammates, one of them asks how she lost her hearing.
“I get that question a lot, so I had an answer ready. ‘I was born like this,’ I said. ‘But when I wear my hearing aid, it’s not a big deal.’”
The book shows what it’s like to live with a hearing loss and shows some accommodations that have to be made.
“‘I am [mumble, mumble],’ she said.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Sorry,’ she signed and glanced up so I could see her face as she spoke.”
For the vast majority of “Girl of the Year” characters, American Girl has partnered with a charitable organization. American Girl researched hearing loss organizations and landed on Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) “as one of the nation’s leading organizations representing consumers with hearing loss and also one of the few that addresses all types of hearing loss in children,” says Parks. “They also afforded many opportunities for us to help them promote education, awareness, and advocacy, as well as sponsor events like Walk4Hearing.”
This partnership includes a $25,000 corporate donation to HLAA. American Girl is also providing a Joss doll and book for each Walk4Hearing event being held in 2020 as part of the organization’s prize giveaways. In cities hosting a walk and where there’s an American Girl retail store, the company will also help cross-promote the event. Additionally, donations will be collected from customers online and at retail stores throughout 2020.
Currently, there are no plans for additional Joss books beyond the two that have been published, but more content is planned. There will be a YouTube “Meet Joss” stop motion series, which will feature weekly episodes for the next six weeks. Other Joss videos are planned, such as do-it-yourself crafts based on Joss as well as other YouTube/video content. Parks says Joss is one of the first dolls to get more content via the YouTube channel, which is where American Girl knows girls are spending a lot of their time for entertainment.
Joss Kendrick made her debut on Good Morning America (GMA) on the last day of 2019. The 18-inch doll is $98 and comes with two BTE hearing aids, (in case one gets lost.) She also comes with a storage case, cleaning brush, and the first book in the series.
She’s already having a major impact. News of her existence went immediately went viral. And Joss is already part of many lives.
Executive Director of HLAA Barbara Kelley says a little girl came into the Tysons Corner, VA store who had a bone-conduction implant and was so excited about Joss.
“She read all the books and I think she bought all of Joss’s accessories,” says Kelley. “She was over the moon about a doll she could relate to. This one example says it all.”