Dr. Robert Davila – A Deaf Role Model

Dr. Robert Davila and Svetlana standing in front of a wall with artwork.

I would like to talk about Dr. Robert Davila – a deaf son of Mexican immigrants and a remarkable person who has achieved so much in his life and has held many high level positions in his career. He was also the first deaf person in USA whom I met when I was 16 years old and who became my first deaf role model.

I can relate to Dr. Davila in many ways. His first language is spoken Spanish and mine is spoken Russian – so English is not our first language. He became deaf from meningitis when he was 11 and I also was deafened from meningitis when I was 2. He learned sign language at a later age and so did I. After graduating from California School for the Deaf and Gallaudet University (where he could communicate in sign language), he attended regular universities for Master’s and Doctorate degrees during the times when formal communication access services were not provided and there were no disability laws to mandate them. After attending a school for the deaf for 4 years where I could communicate in Russian sign language, I attended regular schools for 7 years where I did not have any formal communication access services like live captioning and sign language interpreting.

Thankfully deafness didn’t prevent me from doing many things that hearing people do – especially that I had no deaf role models growing up. My role models were hearing – real and fictional, live and dead. So I was glad to finally have Dr. Davila a deaf role model to look up to and to keep myself motivated.

I was fortunate to meet Dr. Davila at the age when high school students were thinking about which colleges to go. My family and I knew about Gallaudet, but I didn’t want to limit myself to a deaf-only college as I already knew from my experience attending a school for the deaf. We were also thinking about a regular college, but I didn’t want to be isolated again as the only deaf student like I experienced in mainstream schools. My biggest dream was to attend a regular college that has a mix of both hearing and deaf students – to enjoy the best of both worlds.

My dream started to come true when I was browsing a paper map of NYC area – in the pre-Internet and pre-Google days. I noticed a school for the deaf in White Plains and asked my parents if we could visit there. They said sure.

As we entered the school for the deaf, my father was looking for a superintendent. We were introduced to two people – a deaf man who was signing and a hearing woman who was voice interpreting for him. I was confused at first who those people were and my parents explained to me that the deaf man was a school principal. I was floored! In a school for the deaf that I attended in Russia there were no deaf teachers, to say nothing about a deaf principal! His name was Dr. Robert Davila.

Since I didn’t understand American Sign Language (ASL) and could not lipread in English (I could only speak, read, write in English back then), my mother was oral interpreting to me in Russian what my dad and Dr. Davila were talking about through the ASL interpreter. I knew only ASL fingerspelling. I remember Dr. Davila asking me if I could fingerspell my name and I did. I was thrilled to communicate with a deaf American for the first time – even if just spelling my name!

My dad was talking to Dr. Davila about colleges and also shared my dream with him about the college that has a mix of deaf and hearing students. Dr. Davila said that such college exists – RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). I was very surprised and so thrilled!

My family happened to plan a trip to upstate NY that summer and Rochester happened to be on the way! So we visited that university campus and I decided that it’s where I wanted to go. It was actually the only college that I applied to and I was so glad to be accepted there! My family also bought ASL books for me to learn and practice, but since I was very busy with a regular school and didn’t have deaf people around to practice sign language with me, I had the opportunity to start using and mastering ASL only when I entered RIT as a freshman.

I don’t know which college I would have attended if not for browsing that map or visiting the school for the deaf with my parents. I’m glad that we learned about RIT from Dr. Davila – especially before the internet days. I started using the internet only at RIT, one of many new things for me to learn! If I were to start over again with college options, I would still choose RIT, but probably pick a different major. I didn’t know back then what I wanted to do for a career – I wanted to do everything! I learned so much at RIT and thanks to my experience there I not only got a great education but also met many great people, learned a great deal about myself, and became much more confident in my abilities and advocating for my accessibility needs.

The photo above shows Dr. Davila and me during my college graduation week. By then I mastered ASL, so I could communicate with him directly without problems – a big difference from when we met for the first time! I started my studies at RIT the same year when he started his position as an RIT Vice President, so it was nice to see him around on the campus sometimes. I had a pleasure meeting Dr. Davila again several times after RIT graduation at some deaf events.

My family and I also had a pleasure reading a biography of Dr. Davila – “Moments of Truth”, written by Harry Lang, Oscar Cohen, Fischgrund and published by RIT Press. We got even more impressed with him and his achievements after reading the book. I would highly recommend this book. It sends a message to the world that deaf people can do anything – regardless of what communication tools they use!