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How Kids on the Block Are Winning Friends

June 18, 1987|SUSAN HEEGER

When special education teacher Barbara Aiello created her first kid-size puppet, she never dreamed that she would make 10,000 more or that her puppets would travel the world teaching children about the different ways of being human. At the time, she had one child on her mind.

The year was 1977, the place Washington, where Congress had just passed a law calling for "mainstreaming" of disabled children into the public education system.

"I thought mainstreaming meant teaching children to compete," Aiello now admits. "I'd bone my students up, and off they'd go to public school. I didn't figure on the non-disabled kids. They hadn't been prepared."

As a result, one of her first students to "mainstream"--an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy--learned a lesson in rejection. No one talked to him, Aiello recalled, and after three weeks he begged her to take him back.

The conflict between protecting Anthony and promoting his independence unleashed her creativity. Her solution: a puppet named Mark Riley, who rolled into Anthony's classroom in a wheelchair made of plumbing scraps and garden hose.

Speaking through the puppet, Aiello explained Anthony's condition. Almostly magically, the fifth-graders talked back, asking questions they hadn't been able to ask Anthony.

"Children learn not to approach disabled people," Aiello explained. "But puppets invite communication."

Thanks to Mark, the class accepted Anthony. And Aiello, encouraged by her success, made more puppets, one blind, one deaf, one mentally retarded. She also made non-disabled puppets, so that the puppets' interaction would be a model for behavior and discussion.

Wanting to share her discovery, she began to perform publicly with her puppets, attracting news coverage and winning a spot on "Good Morning, America." The show drew a huge response, prompting her decision to make and distribute puppets for others to use.

"I wanted to start an ongoing grass-roots effort at attitude change," she said, adding that establishing a for-profit company freed her from dependence on "the ebb and flow of political tides that so often determine public funding."

It did not, however, free her from the urge to get things right. "We research and field-test everything we do," she said. "We have advisers around the world--disabled and non-disabled--who read our scripts for technical and attitudinal authenticity. Then we seek the endorsement of a national organization that represents the disability or difference we're addressing."

Among the groups that have given the Kids on the Block program their support are the National Epilepsy Foundation, the National Assn. for Children With Learning Disabilities and the President's Committee on Employment for the Handicapped.

Young audiences have added their own stamp of approval.

Nearly 900 Kids programs are under way worldwide. Aiello has moved her operation from her house to its own building with a staff of 20, plus six field representatives.

And along the way, her focus has broadened, from helping children accept differences, to "teaching them life skills in various sensitive areas."

Currently, a puppet with AIDS is in development. Also to come is a 25-book series that 21st Century Press will publish over five years starting in January. And Aiello is contemplating an animated version of the Kids.

She feels strongly, however, that "the success of the program lies in live interaction between puppet and child."

In that encounter, Aiello said, "children learn to appreciate that differences and diversity enhance and enrich us all."

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