In 2001, I entered the doors of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, armed with little more than an undergraduate degree, a passion for special education, and a youthful belief that I could change the world. Eager to expand my knowledge, I signed up for all the classes on learning differences that were available. It was through this coursework that I met the person who became one of the greatest influences on my career…Dr. Thomas Hehir, or Tom, as he introduced himself to his students.
Lucky for me, Tom arrived at Harvard only a year before I did and had yet to achieve the cult-like following that characterized his later days at the university. I benefitted from an intimate classroom setting where I was able to learn from Tom, who oversaw one of the most impactful changes to special education - the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As the Director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, Tom implemented sweeping changes through IDEA that increased access to general education classrooms for students with disabilities and provided them with greater rights and protections.
One might assume that a professor with Tom’s distinguished background and experience would operate with an ivory-tower aloofness or, at minimum, have a huge ego. But not Tom. His affable, good-natured personality and kind, caring approach permeated everything he did. He laughed easily and made everyone feel at home in his classroom, a true teacher through and through.
When any of Tom’s graduate students questioned policies regarding the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education, he challenged them in the most respectful way possible. In questioning their thinking, Tom cited not only compelling research and evidence, but implored his students to view inclusion as a civil right, not a privilege that may or may not be granted. He was a true servant leader, advocating for the rights of the most underserved populations and inspiring future generations of special education leaders.
In a place like Harvard University that prizes intellect above so much else, Tom reminded us that intelligence must be defined in a broader context. His message was to “minimize the impact of disability and maximize the opportunities for children with disabilities to participate in general education” (Hehir, 2005, p. 49). In other words, change the environment in which we educate students, rather than trying to change the students. Tom recognized the value and potential in each person, seeing beyond disability and recognizing individuals for their strengths rather than deficits.
When I graduated from Harvard, it became clear to me that I needed to be an ambassador for Tom’s inclusive vision of education. In the 21 years since, I have served as a special educator, state policy specialist, director of special education, assistant superintendent, and now, a consultant and author working with dozens of school systems across the country to implement inclusion. Throughout every step of my career, Tom’s influence was palpable. He taught me to view children from a strengths-based perspective, to expect more from students with disabilities than had traditionally been assumed, and to advocate for the most disenfranchised student groups. Tom encouraged me to see our educational system not just as it currently exists, but instead, as what it could be.
I am not unique in the way I have been impacted by Tom’s life. Tom inspired a generation of leaders, advocates, people with disabilities, and family members who no longer accept the limits imposed by society on what is or is not possible for individuals with disabilities. Tom asked us -
“Is our role to comply with law or to comply with the spirit of the law? Are we simply providers of service, or do we produce results?...Are the only important results of our efforts performance on standards-based tests, or do we have a more robust agenda? Do we accept dominant negative societal attitudes toward disability, or do we seek to change the world through education?” (Hehir, 2015, p. 9).
Tom provided me, and so many others, with the tools, skills, and courage needed to transform schools from exclusionary systems of sorting and labeling, to inclusive ones that embrace difference and view disability as a natural part of the human experience. Yet, despite all the progress that has been made towards inclusion, much work remains.
There are still far too many students with disabilities who do not have access to a rich and challenging curriculum and who are segregated into restrictive placements. Similarly, there are far too many educators who either lack the skill set to implement inclusive practices effectively, or who do not hold the belief that all children are capable of rising to high expectations.
But although the work is unfinished, it will most certainly continue. While I may have entered Harvard with a naive optimism that I could change the world, thanks to Tom, I left with the knowledge and conviction that I actually could.
Tom, rest peacefully, knowing that your students will carry the torch for inclusion forward. The world is a better place for having had you in it. We will make you proud.