Integration - The Best Of Both Worlds

Janet Rosenthal gladly recounts the story about Maria Jackson, a beautiful, witty little girl who suffers from multiple sclerosis. "She'd arrive at school about the same time my kids did, only she'd come by way of the handicapped bus. It used to fascinate my kids," she says with a smile.

"Sometimes my children would feel sorry for Maria, which was okay," Janet notes, " I wanted them to learn to appreciate the difficulties other people experience. But it also gave me an opportunity to talk with them about how Maria was just the same as they were, how she liked to wheel around the school yard in her wheel chair just like they liked to run, or how she'd always be telling jokes, just like them. It also gave us a chance to talk about what neat things Maria got to do that they didn't, like ride on the bus everyday, instead of walking. They came to love and appreciate Maria for who she was, not for what made her different."

Integrating Children With Special Needs

Janet was discussing the positive impact integrating children with special needs at had on her children. And she is not alone. Mainstreaming challenged children into regular child care settings, be it family daycare or centre-based care, is paying off in huge dividends. Non-challenged children are learning to appreciate and respect their challenged peers, and in many cases, gaining skills, like sign language, that allows them to communicate better with challenged friends.

Their challenged friends gain self-confidence. By interacting with their peers, they learn to explore their limits, to accomplish tasks that may not have been afforded them in a specialized care. Through important social interaction and the availability of the same resources afforded non-challenged children, challenged children are able to develop to their fullest potential.

Still, there are parents and caregivers who are uncomfortable with the whole idea of mainstreaming. "The integration of handicapped children into "regular" programs in education has been subject to many misconceptions," writes the National Institute on Mental Retardation, Children With Special Needs In Daycare, A Guide To Integration, 1990.

"The general concept of integration includes a range of situations from instances where there is only physical proximity between groups of handicapped and non-handicapped children, to instances where there is close interaction between handicapped and non-handicapped individuals."

The guide reports that legitimate concerns arise about the amount of care given the handicapped child over that of the non-handicapped child, the expense and changes involved in alternations to the program, environment and personnel to accommodate the special needs of the handicapped. "If integration is to work, ... careful decisions must be made concerning such factors as staffing requirements and alterations to the environment. The adjustment of all the children to the situation must be carefully guarded." the guide says.

Parent Involvement

Parent involvement, both with the parents of the challenged child and the parents of the non-challenged child is paramount to the success to any integration program. Sharing information about the child and his/her needs encourages questions and dispels many of the misconceptions parents of non-challenged children may have.

Fortunately, there are many wonderful agencies, like SpeciaLink in Sydney, Nova Scotia, who can assist those looking to find a placement for their special needs child, those who have questions about mainstreaming, and those caregivers and centres who are interested in opening their doors to challenged children. After all when it comes to integration, everyone - parents, children, and staff benefit.

For more information on integration, contact SpeciaLink at (902)562-1662, of you local Social Services office.