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Pioneer Credits Family, School for Success

By Andrea Shettle

Today, Dr. Robert Davila meets every possible definition of the word "success." He has been the only deaf person to serve in the post of assistant secretary for special Education and Rehabilitative Services upon the appointment of former President George Bush the senior in 1989. Although he is on the verge of retirement, he is currently still active as the first deaf chief executive officer of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. And he has been a long-time advocate for people with disabilities around the world.

But once, Davila was just one more little boy growing up in a large and loving Mexican migrant family. Like in many Spanish-speaking families who migrated from farm to farm in search of labor, never settling for long in one school district, Davila and his siblings did not attend school. The young Robert did not begin to receive an education until he became deaf at the age of 8 and was sent to the California School for the Deaf at Berkeley (CSD/Berkeley) where he lived in the dorm ten months of the year. Until then, the only language he knew was Spanish.

Learning Two Languages At Once

"I continued to think in Spanish while learning American Sign Language (ASL) and for quite a while I signed in ASL and thought in Spanish," Davila recalls of his early years at CSD/Berkeley. "For example, I would make the sign for 'glass of milk' while thinking 'vaso de leche.' I think this facilitated my transition to English. Most people who are learning a second language cannot communicate in the second language until they have sufficient vocabulary or an understanding of the language structure and usage. In the case of ASL, which is often graphically symbolic, I understood the signs quite readily but did not have to convert my thinking language to English concurrently with the learning of the signs. This is probably unique to ASL."

Even with a relatively easy second language like ASL, exposure is still important. "The most critical factor in my development was probably the fact that I lived at the school for 10 months of the year," says Davila. "I was totally immersed in ASL and, subsequently, English."

The Support of Family and School

The most important factor in Davila's success, he says today, was the love of his family and the encouragement of his teachers. "I was in the care of very caring people who took an interest in me and nurtured my intelligence, interests and abilities," says Davila. "Of course, this caused severe culture conflict as I became older, but I learned to switch between languages, cultures and environments quite comfortably. My family was very helpful, too. My mother encouraged English use in the family as a way to help me. Although I was not home much after becoming deaf, there has always been a lot of love in my family and I never 'lost my place' nor have I ever forgotten from whence I came."

Davila had so much support, in fact, that he feels he never experienced the prejudice or other barriers that many Latinos with disabilities must confront during their academic and professional careers. If anything, becoming deaf was actually an advantage because he might otherwise have continued to grow up without an education. "I believe I was a bright little kid waiting to be discovered," he says. "It may be sad commentary on our society that I had to become deaf to get the opportunities to obtain a quality education leading to professional/career success. I never had any conflict within myself about my own identity and I have always had positive self-esteem, which bred strong confidence and optimism.

"I also grew up in a school where there were no class distinctions and, therefore, I pretty much avoided discrimination and other social barriers that often keep Latinos from gaining a foothold. I was professionally successful before the Civil Rights movement and the opening of doors to opportunity for minority groups. I really wasn't aware of the barriers that may have existed. I grew up believing that life's rewards went to those who worked hard and had ability. So I strived to be the best I could be. Of course, today I realize that life has not always been fair across the board for everyone and I am dedicated to promoting educational opportunities for Latinos and other minority deaf persons. I work for diversity."

The Future: A Working Retirement

Davila is now preparing to retire from his long career, but his work isn't over. "I do not expect that I will be idle in retirement life," he says. "I will continue to serve on the National Council on Disability at the pleasure of President Bush. I will also remain active in a leadership role in the Deaf community. I plan to do consultant work on several projects that interest me. I am currently working with a few other Latino colleagues to revive the National Hispanic Council. We need a national identity to bring together the thousands of Deaf Latinos who may be disenfranchised within the larger community of Deaf persons because of social, cultural, educational and economic barriers.

"Additionally, a private University in California has invited me to sit in an Endowed Chair for one year beginning in the fall of 2003. The announcement will come from the University and we will be negotiating the tasks and objectives for my service. In brief, therefore, I do intend to remain very active and visible in promoting opportunities for Deaf Latinos and others." Maybe then, more deaf Latino children can grow up as Davila did-in a world without barriers.