Norris Haring, a University of Washington professor, celebrated pioneer of special education and fierce disability rights advocate, has died.
His daughter Martha Haring Groeschell said he died from congestive heart failure June 27. He was 95.
At a time when kids with special needs were often institutionalized or refused enrollment in schools, Mr. Haring helped build UW’s Experimental Education Unit, a school, in 1967. The school, still in operation today, became one of the first in the country to demonstrate that students with disabilities could learn — especially when integrated with their typically developing peers.
The research he and his colleagues conducted while running the school influenced the 1975 federal law that guarantees students with disabilities a right to “free and appropriate” education.
As a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — where he met Dorothy, his wife of 69 years — Mr. Haring studied children confined to institutions. Some were there since birth. The cruelty he encountered, his daughter said, motivated his work.
“He was very driven by the hopelessness he saw — the surgeries, the lobotomies, no medication,” said Groeschell. “People would just be hidden. It was like a plague or pox on you.”
Mr. Haring, nicknamed “Norrie” by his loved ones, was born on a farm in Kearney, Nebraska, on July 25, 1923. Though he did not identify as a person with a disability, as a child he was shamed by teachers for being a slow reader, and took notice when a neighbor boy with Down syndrome wasn’t showing up to school, people who knew him said.
He served as a communications officer during World War II, and was in the first wave of American soldiers that liberated concentration camps in Germany once the war was over.
After receiving his doctorate at Syracuse University and teaching at the University of Kansas, Mr. Haring moved to Washington state in 1965. For a time, he helped make the state a leader in a national movement for more inclusive teaching and classrooms. Today, however, the state has one of the worst rates of inclusion in the country.
He was also a skilled grant writer and recruiter, always looking to nab others to work in his field — including his three children. In 1975, he founded TASH, a disability-advocacy group.
Mr. Haring and his wife, an early childhood educator, donated much of their wealth to the University of Washington. In 2009, the university used the money to create a grouping of special education research and teacher training facilities now called the Haring Center for Inclusive Education, which houses the Experimental Education Unit.
His former colleagues and family remember him as a jazz lover, a car buff and the type of person who never shied away from fighting for people that others thought were too complex to serve.
“When I first met him (in the early 1990s), he was working with students who were deaf-blind,” said Ilene Schwartz, director of the Haring Center. “Others wouldn’t take on that challenge. But he said those children have just as much a right to learn.”
As an academic, he wasn’t afraid to apply what he’d learned about human behavior with his own family, gently testing his kids and grandchildren by offering them a prize in exchange for self-restraint.
“I was not punished as a child,” Groeschell said. “I had all these systems where I would earn points in different things, but ignored if I was naughty.”
By the time he died on June 27, he’d published more than 200 books and peer-reviewed journal articles, continuing to release work long after his retirement in 1994.
Besides daughter Martha Groeschell, Mr. Haring is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and daughter Kathryn Haring, seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son, Thomas Haring.