By Jack Kelley
August 11, 1986 12:00 PM

The idea came in a flash. Real estate developer Susan Anderson, 38, was chatting with neighbors after “Handicapped Awareness Day” at a Fraser, Colo. elementary school, when her friend Audrey Boxwell asked: “What do you think about handicapped dolls?” The notion so intrigued Anderson that she couldn’t sleep that night. “I went to bed and got up again, and stayed up until 3 or 4, sketching and planning,” she recalls. “I worked out the whole business. Right down to packaging, logos and labels.”

That was in September 1983, but the big payoff came this June, when toy giant Mattel, Inc. began shipping its new line of dolls designed by Anderson. Called Hal’s Pals—after ski instructor Hal O’Leary, who has coached Ted Kennedy Jr. and blind actor Tom Sullivan—the 19-inch, soft-sculpture dolls are clearly disabled but as cute and cuddly as a Cabbage Patch Kid. The five Pals include a one-legged skier, a ballerina wearing hearing aids, a doll in a wheelchair, one with crutches and leg braces, and one with dark glasses, white cane and seeing-eye dog. Retailing for $44.95 to $49.95, the dolls are sold only by direct mail, with Mattel’s profits going to organizations that work with disabled children.

The public acceptance of the dolls has brought Anderson praise from child experts, parents, teachers and doctors, and Mattel has been flooded with inquiries. Says Dr. H. James Holroyd, clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California’s School of Medicine, “There has never been anything like this available to the medical profession. The dolls help disabled children to be accepted by themselves and by others.” The mother of one 10-year-old offers this testimony: “My daughter had always refused to talk to me about her disability, but she fell in love with her doll, because it had braces just like hers. Later she began to talk to the doll about how her braces sometimes hurt and how she thought they were ugly. It was a real breakthrough. If it weren’t for the doll, I don’t think she could have opened up like that.”

The success of the dolls comes as no surprise to Anderson’s own pal Hal O’Leary, 42, who founded the nation’s largest handicapped skier program at Winter Park, Colo. 17 years ago and says he’s “immensely flattered” that Anderson named the product line after him. “When you see a one-legged skier whipping past you on the slopes, you suddenly grasp that person’s capabilities in a very real way,” he says. “When I saw the dolls, I thought, ‘These do the same things for kids.’ ”

O’Leary was the first to prove to Anderson that the disabled didn’t need to be coddled. She was teaching high school and running white-water rafting trips down the Colorado River when she met O’Leary in 1974. “He showed up one day with a van full of blind people and double amputees and started loading them onto my boat,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘We’re all going to die.’ ” As it turned out, the trip’s only casualty was a tagalong German shepherd, which wandered away and returned with a snoot full of porcupine quills.

Inspired by O’Leary’s positive approach Anderson and partner Boxwell hired seamstresses to stitch prototype dolls, while Anderson sat at the kitchen table fashioning leg braces, wheelchairs and tennis rackets from wooden dowels, corkboard and plaster-cast bandages. Her first dolls were turned out in February 1984, a month before the birth of her son, Joe Buck Anderson (husband Ronald, 39, is a plumbing contractor). She launched the dolls at the Handicapped National Championship ski meet in Jackson Hole, Wyo. and subsequently sold nearly 2,000 at up to $120 each, which kept the business just barely profitable. Then last year, a newspaper feature on Anderson was spotted by Cliff Jacobs, a retired verteran of Mattel’s marketing division. Jacobs, whose son had been born with cerebral palsy, set up an appointment for Anderson to meet Mattel CEO Arthur Spear. Says Anderson: “Art took one look at the dolls and said, ‘This needs to be done.’ ”

Mattel set up production in mainland China and hired Anderson as a consultant. Although she receives a royalty from sales, Anderson insists that the money is secondary. “It’s neat to see how everybody’s reacting,” she says. “Because it means you can make a difference.”