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Street Fighter

updated 05/02/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT IS 3:30 ON A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON and Tarah Lynne Schaeffer, Sesame Street's new kid on the block, is home from school. Emerging from a special ramp-equipped van, the 9-year-old fourth grader expertly steers her pink wheelchair up the driveway to her family's ranch-style house in suburban Plainville, Conn. Once inside, Tarah lets her father, Scott, 31, an arts-and-crafts store manager, lift her—ever so gently—from the chair and set her on the kitchen floor.

"Someone got mail today," says her homemaker mother, Kathy, 27, playfully waving a letter from one of Tarah's pals. She has made a lot of friends (including Big Bird, Zoe and Elmo) since her debut on Sesame Street last November as the first full-time cast member to appear in a wheelchair.

"I'm coming," she says now, pushing herself off the floor with both arms, her legs crossed in front, her bottom skimming the linoleum. Somehow Tarah makes it all look easy—despite the pink fiberglass cast she wears on her right leg, the result of a fractured ankle she suffered last month. While practicing for a wheelchair race with other handicapped children, Tarah, a speed demon on the 100-yard obstacle course, went off a ramp and upended her aluminum chariot.

Most kids who fall down usually wind up with scrapes and bruises. But when Tarah takes a tumble, it's cause for real concern. She has osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare, incurable genetic condition better known as brittle-bone disorder. Limbs and joints can be fractured by the slightest pressure, and they're often too fragile for walking. Tarah is able to stand, assisted by-braces. But, as she explained on the Jan. 19 Sesame Street, "my legs don't work so well, and so I use this wheelchair to get around." The chair also affords some protection—except when Tarah's racing. In previous spills she broke her nose and an arm. Her spirit, however, remains unbowed. "Safety is always a priority," says her coach, Don Chaffee, "but she's independent and still learning her limitations."

Since birth, Tarah has suffered more than 90 bone fractures and breaks. "The hard part," says Scott, "was that Tarah would be lying there crying..." "And you wouldn't know what it was," Kathy finishes. "She was able to speak at a year old because she would have to tell us what was going on," her mother surmises. "She knew her ABCs around 10 months. And she watched Sesame Street"—sometimes in a full body cast.

The Schaeffers, who could find no trace of Tarah's disorder in their family's medical histories, went on to have two more daughters, Samantha, now 5, and Amanda, 3, neither of whom are similarly afflicted. Their big sister, meanwhile, radiates vitality. One moment she's showing off her Sega video games; next she's doing her Mrs. Doubtfire impression—and wiggling her toes through her cast.

At the Frank T. Wheeler elementary school, Tarah mingles easily with her nondisabled classmates. A paraprofessional, Virginia Mills, is assigned to help Tarah get around safely. "In every other way," says her homeroom teacher, June Hurier, "she is a typical fourth grader."

The only activity from which she has really felt excluded is gym. So in January 1993, Tarah joined the Cruisers, the wheelchair sports team at nearby Newington Children's Hospital, where she has physical therapy once a week. Last spring, Coach Chaffee, hearing about Sesame Street's search for a handicapped new "neighbor," alerted Kathy. She and Scott took Tarah to three auditions in New York City, where the show is taped. Some 70 other children also tried out. Then four weeks later, Chaffee got the good news. "Don, I got the role!" said Tarah, who taped her first dozen segments last fall.

So are Tarah's friends now clamoring to be on the show too? Tarah rolls her eyes. "I knew you were going to ask me that!" she says, sounding oh-so-media-weary after doing the Today show March 10. "Katie Couric asked me the same question, and I was like, 'Oh, gawwwwd!' " Then, with a gleam in her eye, she dares a visitor: "Race me?"

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CYNTHIA WANG in Plainville

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