Some disabled artists and educators have found that disability-themed puppet shows are an effective way of increasing understanding and improving attitudes about disability among the school-age children who watch them.
The Kids on the Block was one of the first puppet arts program to use puppets to educate children about disability. According to The Arc of Chemung-Schuyler (New York), the child-size puppets “were first developed in 1977 in direct response to US Public Law 94-142, sometimes called the “mainstreaming law.”
Since then, Kids on the Block puppet shows have been presented in schools and community venues all over the United States and in 30 countries around the globe. “Each Kids on the Block program is thoroughly researched and field tested before it becomes available to school districts, community service organizations and special interest groups.”
The Kids on the Block troupe include puppets with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, hearing and visual impairment, autism, ADHD, epilepsy, and learning differences as well as puppets without disabilities.
After each puppet show, young audience members have the opportunity to ask questions about the puppets and their disabilities. “The Kids on the Block program is powerful in helping break down barriers, enabling children to be candid with their questions and concerns. The puppets also help children feel positive about themselves, accept individual differences and learn valuable personal skills,” says The Arc.
Though Kids on the Block may be the most well-known puppet troupe to instruct children about disability, they are not the only one. Below are descriptions of other disability-themed puppet programs that teach school-age children about disabilities.
“What Happened to You?”
Puppet artist Nikki Charlesworth’s production, “What Happened to You?” is based loosely on her own experiences living with disability. Featuring three puppets with disabilities, the show raises awareness about the challenges people with disabilities face on a daily basis.
“Each puppet’s story explores our preconceptions about disability in a playful and humorous way and showcases the endless opportunities out there once barriers of all kinds are removed,” Charlesworth explains on her website. “What Happened to You?” is accessible to all audiences because it provides embedded audio description, integrates British Sign Language and is presented in a sensory friendly environment. The show was first performed in the UK and will soon open in Toronto, Canada.
Special Kids, Special Families Koscove Kids
SKSF, a nonprofit based in Colorado Springs, also uses puppetry to explore disability themes. Featuring the seven Koscove Kids, multicultural puppets with distinct disabilities, SKSF’s puppet shows educate students in area schools and other venues about how disabilities affect their disabled peers and promote respectful and positive attitudes toward individuals with disabilities.
“Addy and Uno”
Touted as the first family musical about disability, New York City-based “Addy and Uno” tells the story of Uno, a math prodigy with autism who qualifies for a math competition but is afraid to compete. His puppet friends, all with different abilities, encourage him to participate.
Pacer’s Count Me In
Pacer’s Count Me program was established in 1979 and operates mainly in Minneapolis. Schools can request Count Me In programs, or they can purchase their own puppets and present their own onsite shows. Pacer’s sells child-size puppets that represent diverse children with a range of disabilities. Schools can choose between several packages that include puppets, a custom-built wheelchair, props, and resource books. They can also arrange trainings for aspiring puppeteers. Pacer’s also offers anti-bullying puppet programs that include puppets with and without disabilities.
Joseph Maley Foundation’s Disability Awareness, Hope, and As You Are Program
The Maley Foundation offers puppet summer camps where seventh and eighth grade students are trained to facilitate puppet shows and lead post show discussions with their classmates.