The Blind Advantage; How Going Blind Made Me a Stronger Principal

I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Henderson, author of the book titled, “The Blind Advantage” about his career as an elementary school principal. In his first year as a principal, Bill was faced with the challenge to develop one of the first inclusive educational programs in Boston. The opening of his book describes the first 20 minutes of a typical school day for a principal, which included early morning problem solving meeting with teachers, individually discussing concerns different teachers had about students, addressing student concerns and excitements about their accomplishments, handling disciplinary incidents reported by bus drivers, clarifying schedules for substitute teachers, handling the breakfast rush in the cafeteria, along with spills that inevitably occur, replacing a lost textbook, addressing a parent’s concern about her child’s poor grade, refilling an empty water container, listening to a parent concerns about their child being bullied, and ensuring he was on time to depart for an off-location principal meeting. Sounds like a challenge for anyone, but imagine doing this while blind!

Bill Henderson started to lose his vision at the age of 12 due to Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease, becoming legally blind early in his career as a school teacher. Most individuals told him he should get out of education and apply for disability retirement, but Bill felt this was “absurd”. Instead, Bill found that his vision loss helped him strengthen the qualities of determination, vision, sensitivity, organization, collaboration, and humor, traits which led him to continued his education, compete his PhD in Education and become a successful principal.

I asked Bill if he met with resistance when he was promoted to the position of Principal. His response was, “Yes, you are always going to have some unsupportive and some supportive individuals. Some people are more willing and playful about providing accommodations” to help me be successful in the position. Bill stated that he looked for supportive individuals to help when he needed assistance, recognizing and emphasizing that, “…everyone needs help whether or not they have a disability… life is not a game of being completely independent.”

So, how did Bill become such a successful principal, and how did he perform his job without sight? Bill stated he learned to recognize individuals by the sound of their voice; he could identify the level of organization of his teachers by how quickly they could provide a document he needed when he approached them, as well as the amount of shuffling of papers that he could hear; he used technology to access the computer and written documents, as well as asking others to read short documents to him; used a Braille note taker to record and recall specific information; being conscientiously organized; and maintaining frequent communication with all members of his staff, the students, and parents.

Bill helps establish the O’Hearn School in Dorchester, MA as a strong academic school as well as a highly inclusive school. To accomplish this task, Bill implemented a universal design for learning (UDL), which integrates “the power of the arts and technology to provide multiple creative ways that would help all the students to access information, engage in class activities, and demonstrate understanding.” This type of teaching proved beneficial to all students, not just those with disabilities, contributing to the school’s overall success.

When asked what his experience was like as the principal of such a popular school that was such a challenge to develop, he responded, “The level of interaction between the people with disabilities and the people without disabilities far surpassed my expectations. Students were looking at each other as kids with names, not as kids with disabilities. These kids were growing up to expect diversity… There was an elevated quality of teaching, learning, and ultimately student performance academically and socially for all the kids”. What was the key to this success? Focusing on the children’s abilities, finding creative ways to include all learners, and interdependency (expecting all individuals to contribute to the overall success of the school) were the primary reasons Bill credited for the school’s success.

Bill has some final thoughts for an employer who is considering hiring an individual with a disability: “Have high expectations. Expect individuals with disabilities to contribute to the organization, expect them to earn their pay. Ask the person how it is going, how it can get better, and how they can contribute more. Don’t cut them any slack just because they are blind… find ways they can contribute… if the employee is not working out, take time to talk to them about their work performance and the expectations, but don’t expect less from them.”
– article prepared by Kerri Moran

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