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How Did You Get Here?: Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard

reviewed by Su-Je Cho & Ariane Rawanduzy - October 23, 2015

coverTitle: How Did You Get Here?: Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard
Author(s): Thomas Hehir, Laura A. Schifter, Wendy S. Harbour
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612507816, Pages: 256, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

This year celebrates the 40th anniversary of the landmark law, Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAH). Since the enactment of this law, significant progress has been made in providing equal access to education for all children with disabilities (Duncan, 2010). Research has been rigorously conducted to find the best services for children with special needs, but one essential missing piece in this endeavor is the students’ perspectives.

The book titled, How Did You Get Here? Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard is about the unique experiences—from early childhood to college—of sixteen students with varying disabilities and their paths to personal and academic success at Harvard University and beyond. Although faced with different disability-related barriers, all of the students were able to ultimately pursue their intellectual interests. Through in-depth interviews with these students and informal conversations with their parents, Hehir and Schifter reveal that the challenges and adversity faced by these students are not due to their disabilities themselves, but due to teachers’ and administrators’ unwillingness and resistance to support and provide the resources necessary for these students to succeed in school. The book is divided into eight chapters, representing different themes of the students’ clear and candid accounts of the adversity and challenges they faced, as well as the opportunities they found and created in order to succeed.

These eight chapters are grouped into three large categories. The first category is about what roles their parents and advocates played in their success. While the majority of these students admit that these adults recognize their potential, have high expectations, and provide opportunities to overcome their disabilities, they also describe experiencing the initial negative judgment by many teachers and administrators—a significant obstacle to overcome. This category of the book serves as lesson for parents, teachers, and professionals to intervene, provide support, and build confidence through encouragement and understanding in students with disabilities in order to promote academic success.

The second category delves into common characteristics of these students with disabilities. For the most part, these students possess undaunted intellectual drives and actively engage in extracurricular activities that they believe positively contributed to their success. These students are well aware of how their disabilities impact their learning and shape who they are. To overcome their barriers and achieve their goals, almost all of them develop effective strategies and use a range of technology including audio text, large print texts, and other innovative tools.

In the last category, Hehir confirms how the interview results reinforce his belief about how ableism is at the core of the difficulties that individuals with disabilities experience, but also how disability laws can have an impact on them as well. He further reminds professionals of their responsibility to have the right expectations of exceptional students, effectively utilize special education placement options for these students, and provide appropriate accommodations and opportunities to support them. Rather than seeking accommodations on their own, parents and teachers can help students to become the most effective learners for themselves by providing them with explicit strategies to become efficient learners. Schifter concludes the book with her own journey to Harvard and expresses her hope that “the next generation of students moving through college will not have the same challenges as the students profiled in this book.”

An increasing body of literature presents many stories of students with disabilities. The Internet is also a large platform where people can write their stories and experiences about having a disability. While some of these stories illustrate success, the majority paints the picture of challenges and adversity created by societal biases. This book strikes the great balance between adversity and success in several aspects of the students’ personal and educational experience.

The only "drawback" which the reviewers noticed was that some stories were repetitive, especially in later chapters. However, we also think that repetition cannot be avoided when the same stories are used in different contexts, situations, or themes.

As a former teacher and professor in special education, and an aspiring special education teacher, we as reviewers felt that this book resonates with our experience in public schools as we have witnessed the social, emotional, and academic hardships students with various disabilities face if they do not have the full support of their parents and teachers. We have also seen in our experience that while some devoted teachers and administrators strive to understand and accommodate for these challenges, many others have little knowledge about these students’ struggles and how to support them. How Did You Get Here? Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard is an inspiring must-read for all teachers, teacher candidates, administrators, and other professionals serving exceptional students, as it instills the important framework of Universal Design for Learning, self-determination, and other effective strategies for inspiring students with diverse disabilities.

The authors did a fantastic job of describing the experiences and perspectives of resilient, self-motivated, intellectual students with disabilities who made it to and at Harvard. The authors further provide an impetus for a substantive dialogue about getting to know students with disabilities on an individual level, specifically how to provide support, resources, and accommodations to help them reach their fullest potential. As educators, it was truly amazing to learn about the students’ viewpoints through their clear and candid voices. Their unique stories will undoubtedly inspire other students with or without disabilities alike to begin their journey to becoming successful individuals.


Duncan, E. (2010). Celebrating thirty-five years of progress in educating children with disabilities through IDEA. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 23, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18208, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 12:21:33 AM

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About the Author
  • Su-Je Cho
    Fordham University
    E-mail Author
    SU-JE CHO is an associate professor of Childhood Special Education in the Division of Curriculum and Teaching at the Fordham University Graduate School of Education. She coordinates the Childhood Special Education Program.
  • Ariane Rawanduzy
    Fordham University
    E-mail Author
    ARIANE RAWANDUZY is a graduate student at Fordham University.
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