10/15/2013 05:41 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Which Works Best for Your Child - Inclusion, Integration or Segregation?

Four years ago the question of inclusion, integration and segregation came to mind as Mallory was completing her Masters in Occupational Therapy, and Jade was working at a camp for children of varying needs and abilities. Together, they wanted to create a dance program for children of all abilities, to be able to share their passion for dance and reach out to those who may not necessarily have the opportunity to participate in a dance class and express themselves. The question of inclusion, integration and segregation has been an important one in shaping their program to what it is today.

So what is best for individuals with special needs when looking at community programming? Is it a segregated specialized program just for them? A program where they are integrated into a "regular" class? Or complete inclusion? And what is the difference?

Segregation -- this literally means "setting apart" -- or separating individuals; to us it has somewhat of a negative connotation to it. However, we need to remember that sometimes it is best to provide opportunities that best fit an individual's needs, and this may be most easily done through offering something new and different that is not being offered already.

Integration -- synonymous with "combining, blending, fusing" - means grouping all individuals together. Integration does not emphasize providing unique supports for each individual within the group -- but rather treating the group as a whole. To us, this is a big challenge because every individual learns very differently, and everyone has unique experiences in terms of their own abilities.

Inclusion -- from the disability rights perspective, inclusion means accommodating for all individual's needs without restrictions or limitations. In the education world (from my understanding), inclusive classes aim to include students with special needs in mainstream classrooms/programming without sacrificing the supports that they require. This idea sounds ideal, but how is this achieved?

Being a dancer means being part of a community. Dance has the power to heal; it affects the whole person. It is an outlet for self-expression, and a stress-reliever. It challenges us physically and mentally, pushing our focus and ability to learn and memorize new choreography. It teaches valuable life skills including time management, commitment, and hard-work.

There are so many wonderful benefits of being a dancer, and we believe everyone deserves the opportunity to experience this.

When we started Dance Ability we offered a new class, open to children of all abilities. We tried not to specify that it was for "children of special needs" because really, it is open to anyone who wishes to take it. So this class was offered to everyone and anyone with the idea that they would have a dance partner to provide support in adapting/modifying the class as needed. In the larger picture, this class was designed to be "inclusive" for all students.

We have continued with this model, and it has worked quite well. We believe that the "segregated" class helps to provide the right environment and supports that the students benefit from. Many families have continued with Dance Ability because they have witnessed their child achieve more with the support of their volunteer dance buddy, and would sometimes rather them be in this environment than a "regular" dance class which might offer something very different. From what we have seen there is something "special" about Dance Ability. All of the students and families in the Dance Ability classes are connected on many levels - by their shared experiences of having a child with special needs, by their enthusiasm and appreciation towards this class, and by their child's love for dance! At the same time, these students are included and treated as any other student at the studio -- these families have become very much a part of the Dance Elite community, many participating in our other events, and celebrating their birthdays at the studio also!

Although we will continue to offer our "Dance Ability" classes, our goal is always to provide opportunities for students to learn dance and participate fully in their community. We have started to "integrate" some of our dance ability students into "regular" classes as well. This stemmed from small class sizes at the beginning of the year and the need to figure out a combination of ages that would work well. We have tried to think about what makes successful integration (and inclusion); based on our experiences, some of the things that have contributed to these students' success in this classroom are: familiarity with the routine/environment, teaching style, adapting and modifying expectations, and small class sizes. These are just a few of the things that come to mind. There are also many factors we consider when recommending which class would be most suitable for a student. We think the most important factor is always what the student and family wants. What are their goals and where are they going to be most happy?

Now into our fourth year, we've seen almost 50 students through our program and have been touched and inspired by each and every one. The word passionate doesn't even begin to describe how we feel. We are living our dreams each and every day, because we have found a way to do what we LOVE and share that with others. We have created opportunity, and allowed dance to change the lives of other students in ways that we never could have imagined.

Students of all abilities enthusiastically enter the studio, with walkers, AFOs, wheelchairs or sometimes holding someone's hand. The eager students and the very shy students learn to dance around the studio together, discovering new moves and making new friends. Our students are proud of who they are, they recognize themselves as dancers. They are confident and motivated; and perform in the year-end recital on stage. This year, our dreams reached new heights as we were surprised at our recital by a TV crew and a very special guest, Sonia Rodriguez, recognizing what we do, through the Walk the Walk TV series set to air Oct. 19 at 10:30 pm ET on Global TV.

In summary,

Our goal with Dance Ability is to provide OPPORTUNITY.

We strive to provide as much support as possible to make these opportunities successful and available for those who wish to seize it!

So... is it segregation, integration, or inclusion that is the way to go?

Well...we'd have to say that based on our depends. Dreams come true in many different ways.

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