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The following article originally appeared in the November 3, 2011 issue of The Dorchester Reporter. It illustrates the practical advantages of an inclusive environment for learning, both for the disabled as well as the nondisabled student.

Jackie Gentile

“Mediocrity was not going to make it in our school,” said Dr. Bill Henderson, former principal of the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School on Dorchester Avenue in a recent radio interview.

His new book, The Blind Advantage: How Going Blind Made Me a Stronger Principal and How Including Children With Disabilities Made Our School Better for Everyone, was released on Oct. 17. The book illustrates Henderson’s tenure at the former Patrick O’Hearn School, which now bears his name. Though retired, Henderson continues to support the school and all proceeds from book sales will benefit it.

The book, Henderson says, is geared toward practitioners like the staff, parents and other supporters of the school who want to make successful inclusive education available to students of all capabilities.

"This is another way of sharing the good news about a school that did well in Dorchester, not just for kids with disabilities, but for kids … for all kids,” said Henderson.

The author had one stipulation for publisher Harvard Education Press: It had to make the book available to people with print disabilities such as himself. The Blind Advantage is not on local bookstore shelves. Print copies can be ordered, but the audio book, recorded by the Perkins School for the Blind, is readily available on line.

The tome focuses on qualities such as determination, vision, sensitivity, organization, collaboration, and humor that, as the title states, enhanced the school and made Henderson a better principal.

Henderson has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease that affects the retina, which led to his blindness. After his first year as a Boston middle school teacher, the then 24-year-old Henderson was told by a specialist that his eyesight would decline in the next five to 15 years and that he should “get out of education.” Instead, he continued on his career path and eventually became principal of the O’Hearn School where he and staff members set the bar high for students. And many delivered.

These students have a range of capabilities: some are academically gifted, some are right on target at their grade level, and some have intellectual, physical or cognitive disabilities. Henderson envisioned a school that would challenge all students to do their best, whether that was reaching an academic goal or a goal set in their IEP (individualized education program).

Even today, children’s doctors, neurologists, and psychologists tell parents that their kids should not be in an inclusion program with neurotypical children, especially at a young age. “I think my belief, and with many folks, is how do you know that until you try it?” Henderson said.

Though many doctors continue to recommend that students with disabilities, especially developmental disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome, attend special schools, parents of those students and neurotypical ones alike are applying to more slots than the school has available, Henderson says.

We had to be more creative and more flexible in instructional strategies essentially for kids with disabilities, but that same creativity and flexibility really embellished the curriculum for students without disabilities,” he said. Providing every student with an appropriate curriculum requires teamwork on the part of teachers, parents, staff members and outside supporters.

The most important collaboration conversations were not just in the doing and the provision of services, which are critical, but then also coming together to figure out how are we maximizing that child’s progress,” Henderson said.

Henderson notes that student success does not happen only in the classroom. Regardless of disability or background, the kids learn valuable life lessons through interacting with each other. As an inclusive school, classrooms consist of students at all intellectual, cognitive and physical levels.

I think that probably one of the first impressions that outsiders have is, `Wow, look how great the kids get along and they’re all still working and on task`,” he said. “I think from the kids’ perspective, it really became natural.”

With two new grandsons, travel, consulting and speaking at different organizations, Henderson has been keeping busy since his retirement in 2009. He stays connected with the Henderson school and is proud of the teachers, staff and current principal Patricia Lampron for their hard work and dedication to their students.

It’s meeting children where they were and taking them higher,” he said. “That is the heart and the task of education – children’s success.”

Note: Bill Henderson’s book is available as BRC00053 (braille or Web-Braille) or DBM1266 (cartridge or digital download). The book was produced at the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library. Any National Library Service (NLS) cooperating library can get it for you through interlibrary loan.

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