Renaldo Rodrigez is 10 years old and blind. Mark Reilly -- 11 and suffering from cerebral palsy -- rides in a wheelchair and has a speech impediment. Both of them are going to school with ordinary children these days.
It's an impressive accomplishment because, besides their other problems, they have heads made of styrofoam and skins made of cloth.
With a group of fellow-puppets, known collectively as The Kids on the Block, Mark and Renaldo have been touring schools -- beginning in Northern Virgina, where they were invented, but since last year traveling throughout the United States. And at 1:30 this afternoon, they will be seen on Channel 9 in a CBS special, "The Invisible Children," which shows them in classes in Los Angeles and Alexandria.
The puppets were created by Barbara Aiello, 32, an expert on special education, as part of a program to train teachers who will have handicapped children in their classrooms. Her work is part of the "mainstreaming" movement, which takes disabled children out of traditionally "protected" environments ahd tries to integrate them into ordinary schoolrooms.
"After I began working with teachers," Aiello recalls, "I soon noticed that I was overlooking the most important group in this process -- the nonhandicapped children in the classrooms. I would be in a school, and notice that if a girl had braces on her teeth the other kids would call her 'tinsel-teeth' or 'iron-mouth.' If a girl was overweight, her classmates would call her 'Miss Piggy.' There was some educating to be done there."
Mark Renaldo and their friends are ideal educators in a number of ways -- life sized and dressed in real children's clothes (Mark wears pre-scuffed size 5 shoes that he got at Value Village), they are easier to talk to than a real handicapped child, because they are "nonthreatening," as Aiello puts it.
"Kids can ask them questions that they would be embarrassed to ask someone who is really handicapped -- for example, Mark is sometimes asked how he goes to the bathroom in his wheelchair, and he explains that his parents have equipped his bathroom with special rails so that he can get up and down."
They are also easy to interview, with pleasantly extroverted personalities and disarming candor. Renaldo comes on with a flourish, sometimes introducing himself as "The Great Renaldo -- sees nothing and knows all," carrying his white cane with a jaunty air and happily describing how he can tell time with his Braille wristwatch.
Mark will explain that his child-size wheelchair is custom-made (he calls it his "cruiser"), and point out some of the unique compensations of life on wheels: "I went to a Halloween party as a tractor -- only a handicapped kid can do that."
The Kids on the Block have been gradually increasing in numbers ("They were born one at a time, like any family," Aiello says. "Mark is the oldest."), and there are now nine of them, including several with no handicaps. o
When one of Mark's nonhandicapped friends, Melody, says, "Gee, Mark, I don't know if I should play with you. What if I catch cerebral palsy? My mom would be really mad," Mark explains that cerebral palsy is not contagious -- that it is contracted at birth. A collective sigh of relief goes up from the young audience, handicapped and nonhandicapped alike.
The kids usually perform for mixed audiences, Aiello explains. "Sometimes a principal will suggest that they bus in a load of handicapped kids for a special show, and I usually say no -- the point is that they are going to be in classrooms together."
The mainstreaming movement is now supported by Public Law 94-142, which requires states to "assure that to the maximum extent possible, handicapped children . . . are educated with children who are not handicapped," and the number of handicapped children in regular classrooms is growing rapidly.
One reason is the steady advance of medical science. Many children who simply would have died a generation ago are alive and able to go to school today, although handicapped. An estimated 5 percent of the school-age population is handicapped, and the percentage is expected to keep growing.
After Aiello began teaching special courses five years ago, she enlisted a friend, Washington puppeteer Ingrid Crepeau, to help her develop the puppets as a teaching aid. Aiello now has a team of five puppeteers, and an assistant, Bud Forrest.
The troupe first got national attention a year ago after appearing on "Good Morning America," and since then they have been all over the map. Now, a teacher's kit is available including six puppets and instructions on how to use them, cassettes with suggested scripts, Braille alphabet cards and pictures of handicapped people performing a variety of tasks.
The Kids on the Block are operated in a modified form of the Japanese Bunraku tradition, with the puppets on a table and the puppeteers clearly visible behind the table, manipulating them. When Mark puts his hand on the wheel to show how he drives his wheelchair, Aiello's hand can be clearly seen guiding the puppet's. But after a few minutes the humans become psychologically invisible and audiences start relating directly to the puppets.
It works so well, according to Aiello, that "Now, we can't pack the puppets in their trunks while the children are around. We were doing that a while ago, and one of the kids came up to us and said, 'Don't put Mark in there. He won't be able to breathe.'"