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Dr. Robert Davila: the man and his mission.

Robert R. Davila was sworn in as assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services by Vice President Dan Quayle on July 31, 1989. Less than a month later, on a hot, muggy August day in Washington, I was ushered into his spacious, austere Switzer Building office for an interview. He was gracious and personable. He impressed me not so much with his physical presence, but with his comfortable, confident and upbeat demeanor. As assistant secretary, Davila is the chief policy advisor on special education and rehabilitation to Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos. Davila calls himself "a product of rehabilitation who understands its importance." Born to migrant workers, his father died of a heart attack when Davila was 6 years old. At age 8 he lost his hearing. He remembers it as "an opportunity," however. His mother, wanting her son to get the medical attention he needed, decided to settle down in one place. Young Robert was sent 700 miles from his home in San Diego to attend school at Berkeley, and in the process was "totally immersed" in English. That immersion has served to bridge the gap of communication between himself and those who hear.

He earned his Bachelor's degree in education at Gallaudet College. He then taught mathematics and social studies in New York, but yearned to return to California. He earned his master's degree from Hunter College, married, and had two children. He remained in New York at Syracuse University to complete a doctoral program in educational technology.

He was then hired to direct a program at California State University in Fresno. But as he explains, "a funny thing happened" when Dean John Schuchman of Gallaudet "made me an offer I could not refuse." He was hired as an associate professor at Gallaudet, and two years later was promoted to Vice President for precollege programs. Though disappointed that he could not live in California, he calls Washington an exciting place to be. It has certainly helped me in getting this job. If I were in California, I probably wouldn't have weathered the competition."

The only moment during the inter view at which the assistant secretary appeared to be on the defensive was when he asserted that he represents all persons with disabilities. Questions, he said, had been raised about his appointment to the job because he was deaf. Some of his critics felt that he would favor persons with hearing disabilities. He stressed that he would press to meet the needs of all persons with disabilities, and that he would advocate for everyone in need. He is committed to advocating for quality, in the knowledge that many individuals "continue to fall through the cracks." He wishes to see that "every young person who receives an education also receives appropriate support services to maximize the effort."

He is committed to the inclusion of minority persons in special education and rehabilitation. Minorities, he indicated, are "conspicuous by their absence. Good representation doesn't happen by accident. It can happen but it takes hard work." Commenting on the events at Gallaudet last year, he said that much remains to be done. "The administration (of Gallaudet) must capitalize and not just sit back and say the battle has been won. Everyone has a role. It is important to coordinate resources, work with states and local groups. We can do more to coordinate resources, share responsibility. Everyone has to be committed.

Not surprisingly, Davila is committed to the Bush administration. "I supported Bush.... No President has supported or expressed support for persons with disabilities as Bush has. He and the Secretary of Education have begun initiatives for choice in education and at-risk students, and I fully back the reform. We need to promote and strengthen the state/federal partnership."

Davila has restored a sense of direction and pride to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The journey from the fields of California to the Switzer Building has been a long, arduous and productive one. But his greatest challenge is yet to come. He must move the Federal bureaucracy to respond to the growing needs of the many persons with disabilities in the United States, and he must do so with limited resources. If his past holds any clues to his future, Robert Davila will make an impact for the better.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Leung, Paul
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Words:720
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