"You are an important person just the way you are."This Thursday would have been Fred Rogers's 80th birthday. In observance of the date, the City of Pittsburgh (Rogers's homebase) is inviting folks everywhere to wear their favorite sweater -- if you have one, a zippered cardigan would be most appropriate -- and send in a photo or video. Here's a video explaining "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Day.
Fred McFeely Rogers wasn't disabled, but for many American children, his show was an early introduction to people with disabilities, adults and children, as "neighbors"--ordinary, interesting, full members of the community. Longtime cast members on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood included Chef Brockett (played by the late Don Brockett), owner of Brockett's Bakery, who sometimes talked about his physical disability (he had a visible limp); and Mayor Maggie (played by Maggie Stewart), who was a professional ASL interpreter as well as a town executive. Violinist Itzhak Perlman was a guest on Rogers's show, and later played at Rogers's funeral, expressing his admiration for the man.
Children with disabilities were regularly cast as Mr. Rogers's friends, and he spoke with them in the same vein of polite curiosity and spontaneous decency that he did with all his guests. (See the late Jeff Erlanger's fond remembrance of his appearance on Mr. Rogers, including clips, here.) In a well-known episode of the show, Rogers took viewers to visit Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, to demystify the experience of hospitalization. Rogers's Let's Talk About It: Extraordinary Friends (Penguin Putnam 2000) is a picture book for very young children, featuring photos of six real kids playing, disabled and non-disabled, with short bios of each kid in the back--so they're not just models or wheelchair users, they're real kids--pet owners and team members, who like pizza and dolls and swimming. The text of my favorite page:
"If you feel like trying to help somebody, it's a good idea to ask first. Sometimes people want help, and sometimes they don't."I'll be wearing my cardigan tomorrow.