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HGSE Remembers Tom Hehir

A pioneering voice for students with disabilities and their families, Hehir passed away on June 22
Tom Hehir
Tom Hehir addresses the graduating class of 2019 as student-selected faculty speaker.
Photo by Jill Anderson

The Harvard Graduate School of Education is remembering Professor Thomas Hehir, a favorite faculty member, brilliant colleague, and tireless advocate for students with disabilities everywhere. He died on Wednesday, June 22, after a battle with ALS. 

Hehir was an influential leader in the movement of disability rights, his work impacting countless students, parents, and educators. A champion for disabled children, and for the inclusion of all children, Hehir dedicated his entire career to special education — spanning public service, policymaking, teaching, and research. 

"Tom was a caring friend and a tireless advocate for students and their families. I already miss his incredible laugh and generosity," says Dean Bridget Long. "His impact both near and far serves as a wonderful legacy of his many contributions."

Prior to joining HGSE as a faculty member in 2000, Hehir had a lengthy and varied career in special education. He first began working with students with disabilities as an undergraduate at the College of the Holy Cross in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, according to his obituary. He went on to become a teacher and school leader in the 1970s and 80s, serving in various positions at the Boston Public Schools, including as director of special education.

After earning his Ed.D. from HGSE in 1990, Hehir became associate superintendent for the Chicago Public Schools in the 1990s, he led major changes in the special education service delivery system, which drastically improved Chicago’s levels of compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and resulted in the removal of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights as overseer.

Soon after, Hehir stepped into leadership at the federal level when he was tapped by the Clinton administration to serve as director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, from 1993 to 1999. As director, he played a pivotal role in the continued implementation of IDEA nationwide while developing the administration's proposal for its 1997 reauthorization, 90 percent of which was adopted by Congress. 

Beyond those Hehir reached in the classroom and through policy work, he also impacted countless educators and leaders in his role as a faculty member at HGSE for nearly 19 years. Considered a favorite professor by many, Hehir’s signature courses — Implementing Inclusive Education and Students with Disabilities in Schools — forever changed HGSE students' perspectives on what inclusion in education and leadership mean. 

“Much of my leadership has been shaped by his work on behalf of students with disabilities, how he revised and strengthened federal laws to be more inclusive, how he went from being Tom Hehir of the Hehir Report that shaped our work for 200,000 students with IEPs in NYC to being Tom, my mentor and friend,” said Stephanie Downey Toledo, Ed.L.D.’18, superintendent of Central Falls School District in Central Falls, Rhode Island. “His inclusive vision will continue to shape how I lead as we work to ‘minimize the impact of a disability and maximize opportunities to learn.’”

Hehir shared his knowledge about inclusion worldwide. He wrote passionately about special education, special education in the reform movement, due process, and least restrictive environment issues. He repeatedly advocated for inclusion efforts in news publications, and published books advocating for children with disabilities in the education system, including New Directions in Special Education: Eliminating Ableism in Policy and Practice; Effective Inclusive Schools: Designing Successful Schoolwide Programs; and How Did You Get Here?: Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard.

In marking Hehir’s retirement from HGSE in 2019, inclusive education consultant and parent Melanie Perkins McLaughlin, Ed.M.'17, wrote, “Tom has consistently reminded all of us that disability is natural, equity includes individuals with disabilities, and inclusion is more than an educational concept. It is a state of mind.”

"By helping change mindsets about inclusion," says Katie Grassa, Ed.M.'05, principal of the Curley School in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, "he was also fighting for racial justice, since black and brown boys were over-represented nationally in special education."

Reflecting on his own career, as 2019 HGSE Convocation faculty speaker, Hehir said, “It became clear to me that we, as educators, needed to confront ableism just as we need to confront racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia. We needed to embrace students with disabilities for who they were and move toward a world in which people with disabilities are respected and embraced.”

Through his work and dedication, Hehir leaves behind a long legacy of commitment to the field of special education and the importance of understanding what real inclusion means in education.

"How lucky we are to have known, loved, worked with, learned from, laughed with, and enjoyed the warmth, collegiality, brilliance, and friendship of the incredible Tom Hehir, whose life had an epic impact on others!" says longtime colleague, Senior Lecturer Mary Grassa O'Neil. "He gave so much to so many and changed our lives by opening the door to inclusion, belonging, access, and opportunity. We lost a great friend!"


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