by Joseph H. Huber, PhD

Sensitizing Children to the Needs of the Handicapped

From left,
Mark Riley
(Cerebral Palsy),
Barabara Aiello
Sarah Michaux

the Stars of
Joseph H. Huber

For those handicapped children whose deficient physical or motor functioning has been successfully ameliorated in aspecially designed physical education program, placement into regular physical education classes is not only a challenge to the instructor, but can present. a formidable challenge to nonhandicapped students as well. Peer acceptance and social interaction between nonhandicapped and handicapped students is not readily accomplished and should be explicitly addressed to insure the successful transition of handicapped children into an integrated environment.

One of the major tasks to promote social acceptance of handicapped children and thus create a more favorable learning environment for all students is to address non handicapped students' fears and misconceptions of their handicapped peers. Many teaching strategies have been developed to achieve these goals. Some of the most commonly used programs and teaching approaches in physical education include:

Since 1977, a program known as The Kids on the Block, which uses life-size hand-and-rod-puppets, has been adapted by many classroom teachers to help dispel myths and encourage interaction between non handicapped and handicapped students. The internationally known puppet program was created by Barbara Aiello, a former special education teacher, who is now president of her own company located in Columbia, Maryland.

To date, the physical education profession has given little attention to Aiello's approach. Could The Kids on the Block puppet program offer the profession a teaching strategy which may prove more useful in main streaming handicapped children than approaches currently employed?

The key educational merit of the program lies in the format of the performimg puppets. Although the audience can see the puppeteers moving the body and speaking the voice of the puppet, students' attention is focused on the puppets and what is being communicated, not on the puppeteers.

Each script is written for two puppets. One puppet is handicapped and the other is a nonhandicapped friend named Melody. Learning about the handicap is acquired. by watching the interaction between the two puppets. Melody represents the hearts and minds of nonhandicapped children in the audience; she formulates questions these students would like to ask, and poses questions to the handicapped puppet.

Aiello notes, "Children are afraid to ask questions of a handicapped person at first. They have been taught by their parents not to talk to or stare at people with adisability." Melody represents that initial fear but ultimately demonstrates to the children in the audience that there is nothing wrong in noticing what is different about a person. Melody also shows the children that it is OK to ask questions in a sensitive and caring manner about what it is like to be handicapped.

Puppetry is a non-threatening medium and typically invites curiosity. Aiello explains, "If the puppets are operated well, technically and dramatically, then teachers, as puppeteers, can suspend the emotional reality of the children long enough for them to believe in the characters and ask questions. When children are able to do that, they are practicing appropriate behavior."

Thirty-two different puppet characters have been created by Aiello. At flfSt, disability awareness was the sole focus;. however, medical issues and social concerns are now also addressed. The program's design does not necessitate special training to be a puppeteer. Each puppet program includes: a detailed script, a video cassette to help portray puppetry techniques and vocalizations, a list of frequently asked questions and answers, and detailed information about each handicap.

Each puppet's script is devoted to a sport, game, recreation, or camping activity. There are also suggested adaptations for various disabilities enabling successful participation on the part of the handicapped in mainstream physical education classes, as well as recreation and athletic activities.

A key to effective mainstreaming lies in the strategies which guide children toward healthy attitudes and responsible decision making regarding the handicapped. As an adapted physical education teacher, how do you effectively address peer acceptance and social interaction of handicapped children in an integrated environment? How successful have you been? Is The Kids on the Block program a viable alternative to your current approach of sensitizing nonhandicapped children?