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239. Duck Paddle

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Lemon's duck tale helps kids understand disabilities

December 31, 2008

"Lemon" paddles across the floor with the assistance of a wheeled cradle

For more than two years, Laura Backman has cared for a little one with a neurological disorder - feeding her, changing her nappies, helping to teach her to move with a walker.

Now, that baby is getting around with her own webbed feet.

Lemon, a Pekin duck, has been physically disabled since she hatched in the kindergarten class Backman taught in Portsmouth.

Backman has now turned Lemon's life story into an illustrated children's book, "Lemon the Duck," to teach tolerance and inspire hope in children, disabled or not.

After Lemon hatched, her balance problems were immediately apparent.

She couldn't walk on her own - and she still can't, because of a neurological problem her veterinarian suspects could have been caused by temperature or humidity problems during incubation, or by viruses or other infectious agents getting through the shell.

The handful of other chicks hatched in the kindergarten class incubator all went to pre-arranged homes, but Backman agreed to take on Lemon and all the tender care she would require.

"That's one of the things I'm trying to give her, is a ducky life, even though she can't live outside with the ducks," Backman says.

"I know it probably sounds like I'm obsessed with her. And I am. But it's a good obsession."

Backman has always loved children's books and thought Lemon's life was worthy of print. Her publisher agreed.

"We just thought it was a fantastic inspiration story, what she's done with this duck," says Meghan Nolan, editorial director at Lobster Press, a Canadian kids' book publishing company that put Lemon's story in print. "The messages were really nice for kids, about acceptance and embracing difference."

The book - Backman's first - describes the true story of how children come to understand Lemon's disability and rally around her, devising ways to help and taking turns feeding her.

By the end of the book, Lemon mucks around in the grass with other ducks thanks to a feeding harness - a dog's water flotation vest turned upside down and attached to a stand.

Backman's character - called Ms. Lake in the book - tells her students Lemon will always need them.

"I think we need her, too," says one student as he hugs Lemon.

Pekin ducks can live a decade or longer.

In real life, Lemon is cuddly, sociable and never shy to butt into a conversation, letting out a rapid series of gutteral barks when Backman presents her with a bowl of chopped tomatoes.

The "Lemobile" is about a foot-and-a-half-square (0.5-meter-square) contraption made of hard plastic piping, a sling and smooth-rolling wheels. Lemon kicks her feet, wags her tail feathers and propels herself forward or in circles.

"She's very feisty. She has a real zest for life," Backman said in an interview as Lemon quacked contentedly in the family's airy, waterfront home in Portsmouth.

Because Lemon can't control her bodily functions, she has to wear nappies that Backman changes six times a day.

Backman bathes her every morning and carts her almost everywhere she goes. Lemon has been with Backman to dentist appointments and relatives' sonograms.


Please read about some other animals that help people: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98958273

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