Reynaldo Rodriguez cuts a stunning figure in his striped turtleneck, his blue hair - and his white cane. He is blind, yes, but he is quick to point out that he can read in Braille, feed himself, even play baseball with a special buzzer-equipped ball. "I can do lots of things," Reynaldo boasts.
So can Ellen Jane Pet. She is mentally retarded, and makes no bones about admitting it. Yet she holds down a full-time job in an animal hospital.
And what about freckle-faced Mark Riley? A cerebral palsy victim, he is confined to a wheelchair, can't move his arms or legs and sometimes has trouble eating and speaking. But Mark can play checkers like a champ.
The message, of course, is that the handicapped are valuable people. But when Reynaldo, Ellen, Mark and Company deliver that message, it tends to "take" more readily than it ordinarily might.
The reason is that they are puppets, part of a troupe of three-footers designed and operated by two Washington area women - Barbara Aiello, a 31-year-old special educator, and Ingrid Crepeau, a 29-year-old professional puppet For the last four months, they and their troupe have been strutting and muggling before schools and day camps - sending forth word via a variety of skits that being handicapped is a lot less awful than it might seem to "normal" people.
At times, the results have been remarkable. One little boy in Northern Virginia, a cerebral palsy victim, had not spoken in six months. But after seeing the puppet show, he began talking animatedly to Mark Riley about their mutual disorder. Another boy, whose older brother is mentally retarded, was able to admit it in front of his friends for the first time after the friends saw Ellen Jane Pet in action.
National exposure may not be far off, either. The producers of Captain Kangaroo, a children's television program, will audition the puppet show next week.
One reason the show attracted television's attention is that the puppets are gutsy. The "normal" ones do not shy from questions that many people would not have the nerve to ask a handicapped person. In addition, audiences are encouraged to ask the puppets questions after each skit.
For instance, Mark Riley has a duscussion with a "normal puppet in one of Aiello's and Crepeau's skits. One of the playmate's first questions is how Mark uses a toilet. As he replies - "I use special handrails my family has installed in the bathroom" - audiences nod in a way that suggests they were wondering exactly that.
Questions from audiences tend to be just as direct. At a performance last week before an Arlington "play camp" audience of 6 year-olds, one little girl asked Mark: "How do you play or go to school or have any fun?"
Mark, whose voice is supplied by Aiello, replied: "I can play lots of things - marbles, Monopoly, checkers." Later, the 6 year-old questioner told a friend: isn't much different from me."
"Appreciation. That's the issue," said Aiello, who hopes to sell the puppet show to schools that want to show "normal" children what handicapped children are really like.
"What we try to show is the skill a handicapped person has to have to survive in this society."
But the message "normal" children draw from the whow seems to be that they should be kind to the handicapped, in addition to counting their own blessings,
Tara Laster, 6, told a fellow member of last week's Arlington audience that a blind man lives on her block. "I'm nice to him, but everyone else isn't always," she said. "I like the show because maybe people (who see it) will be nice to blind people, too."
Maureen Mallet, 7, said she had been especially struck by Mandy, a deaf puppet who wears a hearing aid in each ear. "I wouldn't ever want to have to wear those," she said. "I'm glad I know about it (deafness) now."
Such reactions are, at least in part, the result of the show's tone. While the puppets treat handicaps seriously (Reynaldo admits he is "very mad sometimes" about being blind), they are still capable of wit (Mark calls his wheelchair "my cruiser").
According to Aiello, the biggest boosters of the show are parents of the handicapped. "They're the ones who know that, in this society, there are people we're taught not to look at," she said.
Other groups have been skeptical, Aiello acknowledged. "We've run into the feeling that there's no good way to handle (the portrayal of the handicapped)," she said. "People's reactions can be scary."
But they can also be revealing. Although Aiello and Crepeau stand in full view behind their puppets during the show, audiences almost always direct their questions to the puppets. "That has to mean we're doing something right," Crepeau said.
Another indication that audiences accept the show's premise is the lack of self-conscious snickering. Although Ellen Jane Pet speaks in the slow, groping cadence of some retarded people, no one finds it funny.The same goes for Mark Riley and his lisp.
Aiello admits that no puppet show can overcome the "massive prejudice" society has against the handicapped. "But the kind of honesty we portray has had a very good effect," she said.
Just then, a group of 6-year-olds was proving her right. One by one, they were shaking Mark Riley's limp right hand.