Mom Created an Inclusive Elf on the Shelf With Matching Wheelchair for Her Daughter With Spinal Muscular Atrophy

Beans the Elf is bringing joy to a toddler this holiday season—and showing other parents how to make toys and traditions more inclusive.

Child holding an elf on the shelf who is in a wheelchair
Photo: Samantha Lackey

Elf on the Shelf can be the bane of your existence—or a way to flex your creative muscles. For kids, it's a fun way to get into the holiday spirit. Kids find Santa's little helpers hiding in egg cartons, making sprinkle angels, and taking a bathroom break (hey, elves are people too, right?).

Families have different traditions with elves. But most elves typically have something in common: They get around on their feet, or so the child's imagination tells them.

One mom went in a more inclusive direction. Samantha Lackey of Arizona dreamt up Bean the Elf for her toddler, Stella, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a rare, genetic neuromuscular disease. Like Stella, Bean uses a wheelchair to get around and pink AFOs, an assistive therapy that helps strengthen muscles.

Elf with feeding tube
Samantha Lackey

"At first, it was a no-brainer that the elf should have a wheelchair like Stella," says Lackey. "Representation in toys is important because it's like a rite of passage in childhood that every kid deserves."

Stella was diagnosed with SMA type 1 when she was one month old. Today, Lackey describes Stella as an "opinionated and smart toddler." And she's had some heartwarming opinions about Beans' antics, which she inspired.

Elf in wheelchair rock climbing
Samantha Lackey

"Stella, like any toddler, gets a good adrenaline rush going down a ramp," says Lackey, who is posting Beans' adventures on her Instagram under the username @stronglikestella. "The first night, Bean the elf went down a ramp into a bowl of cereal with friends."

Lackey knows some parents loathe the tradition, but she's had fun with it. Stella once used a nasogastric (NG) tube to eat. She has since graduated from needing it, so the tube got a second life with Bean and another doll. That morning, Stella found the two enjoying hot cocoa. Bean has also gone rock climbing in Stella's play area. Stella loved that, but her favorite setup came when Bean took an imaginary "field trip."

"With her Doc McStuffins, I set up a mock hospital scene for her to find," Lackey says. "One thing that got Stella through her last hospital stay was playing with dolls and taking care of them."

Elf in wheelchair holding feeding tube connected to toy baby
Samantha Lackey

Lackey says the toy industry has come a long way in better representing people with different abilities—Stella has a Barbie who uses a wheelchair. But Lackey says there's still a ways to go and has advice for parents who want to be more inclusive during the holiday season and beyond.

"Bring a little inclusion into your child's everyday life," she says. "A toy, a book, or a show with a character that has a disability [can help]. Don't hush their questions when they have them. We, as parents, make things more awkward by doing this. Say hi, smile, wave—it will be appreciated."

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