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.
“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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