Melissa Shang’s transformation from a quiet Pennsylvania fifth grader into a national disability advocate began with a battle over a doll.

Born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological disorder that causes muscular atrophy in her legs and arms, Melissa wanted to see herself in her favorite toy. Almost three years ago, when she was 10 and her sister, Eva, was 17, they started a widely shared online petition asking the maker of American Girl dolls to design one with a physical disability and feature it as Girl of the Year, with an accompanying book.

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