Twenty years ago, when a mother gave birth to a child with Down Syndrome, the doctor looked at the parents with great sympathy and said, “Put this baby in an institution. Forget about it. Go home and make a new baby.” Because the message was so horrible, many parents cried their tears and tried to push the tiny infant they were giving away out of their minds. They pretended not to feel guilt and despair. As research in medical science and education learned more about the value of early intervention, doctors began encouraging parents to take their child home and to love him or her as they would any child. More parents learned how to cope successfully with their disabled children. They began forming support groups where they could discuss their problems and concerns with parents in similar situations. Eventually, these parents wondered where their children would be going to preschool. Traditionally, children with special needs had been involved in early intervention programs until age three. They would then enter the public school special education classroom with other developmentally delayed children Some parents decided that they wanted their child to have an opportunity to attend a regular preschool program. Two things helped this happen.
First, the federal government enacted a law enabling parents to enroll their children in “the least restrictive environment.” Second, research indicated that children with disabilities who were integrated into regular preschool programs showed gains in their social interaction and language development. Research and professional observation also suggests that integration has many advantages. Children with special needs learn many important skills. They learn to adapt to a group situation, to follow routines, and to participate appropriately. This will carry over into their everyday life and subsequent school experiences. Integration also gives disabled children the chance to make friends and to socialize with other children. Through interacting with other children, they learn the value of communication and the give-and-take of conversation. They also are better at following verbal instructions and talking spontaneously. They learn how to use materials appropriately, how to play independently, and how to take care of their own needs, such as getting dressed and undressed. Most of all, they have fun and become an integral part of their peer group and of society.
Non-disabled children also benefit from an integrated program. Interacting with children who have a variety of needs teaches children how to focus on the individual and not on the disability. They also learn when and how to help others, and are not uneasy offering assistance when needed. Children who participate in integrated programs grow up accepting people with disabilities as valuable members of society. They may even grow up to be adults who advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities. The experience is also beneficial for teachers and child care providers. Working to integrate disabled children into a regular program helps them improve their observation, problem-solving, and planning skills. Improving these skills helps caring for and teaching all children.