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Volume 10, Number 4
July/August 1994

Changing the Way We Think About Kids with Disabilities

A Conversation with Tom Hehir


Tom Hehir is director of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. He was formerly associate superintendent in the Chicago Public Schools, director of special education for the Boston Public Schools, and a special education teacher at Keefe Tech in Framingham, Massachusetts. He was interviewed for the Harvard Education Letter by Edward Miller.

HEL: How has special education changed over the past few years?

Hehir: We have made tremendous progress in the way we think about disability. Disabled people are no longer viewed as the objects of charity, but as a distinct minority who have been historically subject to discrimination and have now gained full civil rights through the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA seeks nothing less than full participation and integration of disabled people in all aspects of American society.

Children with disabilities should be educated as much as is appropriate with their nondisabled peers. That has been a requirement of federal law for the last 19 years—that children with disabilities not be removed from regular education in the first place unless they cannot be successfully educated in an integrated environment with appropriate support.

At the same time, we have increasingly seen that kids with significant developmental disabilities like mental retardation, physical disabilities, and autism—who we had thought needed to be in separate programs—can be successfully educated in general education settings. The outcomes are better for those kids if they are educated alongside their nondisabled peers.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.