Persistence Pays for PhD Student Once Labeled Retarded

Persistence Pays for PhD Student Once Labeled Retarded

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Dave Dawson’s future looked bleak in 1974. Based on tests, his ninth-grade teachers labeled him mentally retarded. “My vocational expectation was to be a grocery store bagger,” Dawson said. In fact, he even took classes to learn the proper way to bag groceries. But today, he is the proud owner of a recently completed PhD from the University of Iowa’s College of Education.

butterflies, illustrationDawson remembers his ongoing frustration with school. “I would fail no matter what I did, no matter how hard I studied.” Pouring salt on the wound, school officials posted failing students’ names and test scores on a bulletin board for all to see. Dawson appeared regularly. His frustration erupted in behavior problems. Seemingly unable to succeed academically like his classmates, Dawson turned the tables. “I would stand up and cheer when I got the lowest grade in the class,” he said.  A psychiatrist finally diagnosed a learning disability.

Not the ‘Dumbest’

He was placed in the most remedial class in the school. “For the first time I was with a peer group. And for the first time I was not the — the only way I can phrase this, and I hate this word — the dumbest.” His parents paid tutors to work with him. A summer academy for kids with learning disabilities helped him learn to read — a little. Dawson volunteered to use any tool or technique that might help. “I was in every experiment you could be in,” he said. By 10th grade, he was taking several mainstream classes. By 11th, he was in all regular classes. He decided to go to college. He tried several. Frustrated, he dropped out of each one. But he never gave up.

Eventually, after years of struggle and frustration, Dawson earned a degree in psychology, specializing in rehabilitation. He obtained his master’s degree and recently his PhD at the University of Iowa.

If you want your dream bad enough…

The road from would-be grocery-bagger to doctorate was not easy. With the help of assistive technologies, including scanners that read out loud, he made it through — and became an advocate.

Dawson convinced the university to give him $5,000 to buy more equipment for students with disabilities, and to instruct teachers about the groundbreaking technologies. His persistent advocacy won him a grant and he created the Iowa Center for Assistive Technology and Educational Resources, where he is now director.

Occasionally his 3-year old son has to correct him when they’re reading a bedtime story together. But if his struggles have proven anything, it is that persistence pays. “If I can do this, you really can too,” he said. “If you want your dream bad enough, stick to it. It can happen.”

Bill Asenjo and Dave Dawson shared an office while working on their PhD’s.

Contact Dave at: [email protected] (319) 335-5624

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