Credits Family, School for Success
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
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.