Barbie's new friend is wheeled out

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A new member of the Barbie doll family was introduced to the public yesterday - one that uses a wheelchair and is intended to change attitudes about people with disabilities.

"Share a Smile Becky" is the new 11-and-a-half-inch friend of Barbie, who comes in a bright hot-pink wheelchair. The strawberry blonde doll wears a turquoise outfit with a white shirt underneath emblazoned with IDEA, standing for Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

The doll, made by Mattel, would help dispel uneasiness some people have around those with disabilities, the company said.

Hannah Withers, nine, of Springfield, Virginia, who has cerebral palsy, stroked the doll's hair as she sat in her own wheelchair and exclaimed with a big grin, "She's in a wheelchair."

"I was so excited," said Hannah's mother, Tina. "Becky's legs, you can bend the knees. This is something Hannah is working on." The bendable joints is an exclusive feature of Becky.

James Brady, the former press secretary to Ronald Reagan who was paralysed in a 1981 assassination attempt, said he planned to use the doll as a "teaching guide".

"Barbie is still the same Barbie. She's still cool," he said. The doll is being sold in Toys R Us stores across the US for $19.99 (pounds 12). Between 4,500 and 6,000 dolls have been sold nationwide, Mattel officials said.

"Barbie's world reflects the real world. Barbie has African-American friends. She has Asian friends. She has Hispanic friends. She has men and women friends.

"This is another doll in her world that will really showcase the richness and the diversity that we see in the real world today," said Mattel's product manager, Marla Libraty. AP, Washington