Harvard Educational Review
  1. How Did You Get Here?

    Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard

    Thomas Hehir and Laura A. Schifter

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2015. 264 pp. $35.00 (paper).

    At first glance, How Did You Get Here? appears to be yet another how-to book promising to get you or your child into Harvard. Unlike books such as How They Got Into Harvard (Staff of the Harvard Crimson, 2005) and Get Into Any College: Secrets of Harvard Students (Tanabe & Tanabe, 2010), however, which feature im-pressive yet impersonal ivy-covered buildings on their jackets, a proud professor in regalia and a smiling graduate grace the cover of Thomas Hehir and Laura Schifter’s volume. While How Did You Get Here? also offers stories about students who managed to be admitted at one of America’s most elite universities, a closer look at its cover reveals that the student pictured is in a motorized wheelchair, and this imagery—real people with disabilities but not defined by them—is at the heart of this new book about the people, services, and strategies that impacted the lives of the students profiled in its pages.

    How Did You Get Here? is based on interviews with and recollections from sixteen students with disabilities who attended Harvard, most of whom are graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The individuals profiled are blind, deaf, and deaf-blind and have cerebral palsy, dyslexia, and various other differences in physical or learning abilities.

    Hehir and Schifter tell their stories with sensitivity and candor, in part due to the clear trust that they have built through their close professional and personal relationships with the individuals profiled. Hehir, in particular, talks about attending these students’ “weddings and christenings” (p. 6) and frequently introduces new interviewees with a short reflection on his or her personality based on his knowledge of the student from his classes. For example, he writes that Jennifer “struck [him] as a natural leader” (p. 15) and was “one of the most successful dyslexics [he has] had in class” (p. 15). Hehir and Schifter also write on the topic of disabilities with particular expertise: not only do both authors study issues of disability and schools, but also each has personally experienced the challenges of having a disability (both Hehir and Schifter are dyslexic).

    Using excerpts from interview transcripts, portraits of participants based on experiences with them as students in Hehir’s courses, first-person essays from each author and from one former student, and analysis of the conditions needed for the academic success of students with disabilities, this book paints a rich picture of the various struggles and achievements of individuals and their families as they negotiate Individualized Education Plans, decisions to mainstream or attend special schools, and coming to terms with their identities as learners who have disabilities. Hehir and Schifter write, “We believe first and foremost that this book will help dispel the ableist myth that students with disabilities cannot achieve at the highest intellectual levels” (p. 14). They dispel this myth ably and convincingly and at the same time refrain from glossing over nuance and contradiction for the sake of a simple prescription for success.

    Each of the first seven chapters highlights one factor in the high educational attainment of the profiled students. Chapters 1 (“My Mother”) and 2 (“I Had Teachers Who Believed in Me”) discuss the roles of parents and teachers as champions for their children and students. Supportive parents and teachers maintained high expectations for these students and served as their advocates when official policies seemed counter to the best interests of the child. Despite separate chapters for each of these adults in the lives of the students, Hehir and Schifter show how the distinct roles of “family member” and “educator” blurred for more than one student in the book, such as when Amy’s mother became a special education teacher at her school after becoming frustrated with the status quo, or when Daniel’s teacher became a regular attendee at family holiday celebrations. Despite the benefit to the child, the authors also take a strong stance regarding the suitability of some of this blurring, saying, “In too many of these cases, the parents have had to take extraordinary action to ensure their child’s success . . . expecting parents to become service providers and experts in disability is clearly not appropriate” (p. 46). Moreover, while these chapters note the importance of strong parent and teacher advocates, the authors point out that many of the stories “demonstrate that neither parents nor educators have always been correct in their decisions” (p. 47) and that there are many factors, in-cluding the preferences of the student, that go into any decision for a child with disabilities.

    In a similar way, those chapters that focus on the roles that extracurricular activities (chapter 4, “I Found Things to Do Outside the Classroom”), developing strategies (chapter 5, “I Was Always Forced to Find a Way”), technology (chapter 6, “I Could Not Have Gotten Here Without Audio Text”), and identity (chapter 7, “My Disability Shapes Who I Am”) give valuable and nuanced insight into how these students were able to meet their own personal needs, sometimes with
    accommodations and sometimes without. For example, in chapter 5 Monica and Erin both describe trying (and often succeeding, at least for a time) to hide their vision loss from their peers, teachers, and even families; it is this ability to self-accommodate, the authors note, that may have actually prevented them from getting much-needed services sooner. And in chapter 7 it is not just the complexity of how each individual describes himself or herself but also the range of portrayals of identity that add dimension to the depiction of students with disabilities. Some disabilities are more visible than others, and the authors point out that for students with dyslexia, which has no physical attributes, some may choose not to disclose, whereas, like Jennifer, others are open and candid about their disability.

    These tensions—between accommodation and individual tenacity, between inclusion and segregation, between disclosure and privacy—surface the most interesting content in this book. As chapter 3 (“I Was Always Asking My Teachers for More”) effectively points out, all of the students profiled are intellectually gifted and are avid self-advocates. Yet, even the smartest and most resourceful student with a disability may require more support than what is offered in mainstream classrooms. One student described the impact of a particularly caring teacher, while others recalled the important role of special education classes or the value of an aide in their mainstream schools. Yet for other students, it was in special schools that they received a level of accommodation, comfort, and community that was invaluable for their school success. For example, Hehir writes that after years of suffering from anxiety and depression, “Nicole described her experience going to a special high school as overwhelmingly positive and central to her success after years of failure in the mainstream” (p. 87).

    For educators like Hehir and Schifter, who advocate for inclusion in their roles as policy makers and researchers, to profile cases where segregation into special schools appeared to be the best option for some students is a testament to their commitment to the best educational experiences for all children. As Hehir writes in the final chapter (“I Thought I Knew Something About Disability”), “These narratives support my increasing belief that it is important that alternatives are available to students and families when the mainstream fails to meet their needs” (p. 181). He considers the question of inclusion, the impact of ableism, the potential of Universal Design for Learning, the state of special education, the role of early identification and intervention, and the problem of policy to better understand the variety of factors and options that affect the lives of students with disabilities and their families.

    With less than 14 percent of Americans with disabilities receiving a college degree, and even fewer receiving graduate degrees (Erickson, Lee, & von Schrader, 2015), stories like those featured in How Did You Get Here? provide necessary inspiration and perspective for students with disabilities and their families. However, it is important to note that all but one of the students interviewed in this book are from affluent backgrounds. These wealthy and well-connected families are likely best poised to beat the odds for their children with disabilities compared with poorer famlies. The focus on more privileged families is certainly a limitation of the book, and one the authors openly acknowledge.

    Yet, despite the relative homogeneity of the socioeconomic class of the individuals profiled, their stories are important; further, since so many of the interviewees are also now educators, their experiences may have the additional benefit of sensitizing fellow educators to the needs of the students with disabilities they encounter in their own work. With more stories of individuals with disabilities, and with more advocacy from educators like Hehir, Schifter, and those profiled in this book, it may be possible to create better systems that will ensure the success of all children.
    e. b. o.


    Erickson, W., Lee, C., & von Schrader, S. (2015). Disability statistics from the 2013 American community survey (ACS). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Employment and Disability Institute. Retrieved from www.disabilitystatistics.org

    Staff of the Harvard Crimson. (Eds.). (2005). How they got into Harvard: 50 successful applicants share 8 key strategies for getting into the college of your choice. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

    Tanabe, G., & Tanabe, K. (2010). Get into any college: Secrets of Harvard students (7th ed.). Bel-mont, CA: SuperCollege.
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    Book Notes

    Learning to Improve
    Anthony S. Bryk, Louis M. Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul G. LeMahieu

    How Did You Get Here?
    Thomas Hehir and Laura A. Schifter