SAN DIEGO – Peter Dawson, district administrator for the Blind Field Services Division of the California Department of Rehabilitation, has been nominated for the first annual “No Limits” Award, an honor spotlighting individuals who have succeeded in the face of physical disabilities. The award is part of the “No Limits” Mentoring Mission, a charitable outreach program dedicated to helping disabled people of all ages achieve their dreams.
Unlike most teenagers waffling between potential professions, Dawson knew exactly what he wanted to do from an early age. “My feet were firmly planted on the ground, but my head was definitely in the clouds,” said Dawson, a former high school athlete whose father was a renowned surgeon and mother a nurse. “My dream was to become a Naval pilot, and I had already been accepted into the ROTC program at the University of Washington.”
However, those plans would inalterably change on a warm Sunday afternoon in 1977, just three weeks before graduating from Mercer Island High School in Washington state. “I was having a blast with other classmates at our informal annual event, sort of a ‘rites of passage’ weekend filled with partying and off-road riding,” he said. “As I was rounding a corner on my trials motorcycle, a guy on a motocross bike lost control and barreled into me at high speed. The gas tank, speedometer and who knows what else just smashed me straight in the face.”
Unconscious and blinded, Dawson was rushed to the hospital where his face was literally wired together just to hold it in place. “My life had changed in the blink of an eye. One minute I was having the time of my life with my school buddies, and the next, wondering if I was going to die,” he said. “I was only certain of one thing – my dream of becoming a pilot was out the window.”
After he was stabilized by a team of surgeons, it was determined that one eye was damaged beyond repair and would have to be removed. A week later, Dawson was flown to the Bascom Palmer Institute at the University of Miami, where he met the world’s preeminent retina specialist at the time in hopes of saving his remaining eye. Unfortunately, nothing could be done. The graduating senior with such a bright future had permanently lost his vision.
“I had no idea what I was going to do… my life had been pulled out from under me,” Dawson said. “Since I had already been accepted at the University of Washington, and my brothers were going there, I decided to go… but my heart certainly wasn’t in it. I was passed around between my brothers and friends to help me get to my classes. I did start listening to books on tape and even learned how to type. One day, a representative from the Washington State Commission for the Blind encouraged me to get some training to better deal with my disability. I wasn’t ready to hear anything about being disabled at that point, and basically showed him the door.”
By the following year, and after the first of over 30 reconstructive surgeries, Dawson felt more helpless than ever. “I felt totally humiliated having to rely on others to get around campus. And then one day, my brother took me to a large auditorium for a lecture and forgot to come and get me. I desperately had to use the bathroom, and I was fumbling around… trying to find the bathroom and running into walls and furniture. I was devastated.”
After that, Dawson hired an independent contractor to help him get around campus using a white cane, but he was still unwilling to enter a state-run training program for the blind. “The full weight of my situation crashed down on me after the auditorium incident,” he recalled. “I had been this popular jock in high school, and now I looked like hell, since I did not have artificial eyes at the time. It was only my faith, family and friends that kept me inching forward.”
After a year of dealing with his blindness on his terms, Dawson finally relented and entered the state program for the blind. “I felt like I had been placed into a mental institution or something.” And, suicidal thoughts crept into his mind. “The only successful blind people I had ever heard about were singers or musicians,” he reasoned. “And, I had seen blind people on streets of Korea begging for coins, and people with disabilities selling pencils right here in the U.S. Somehow, though, I got through this very dark point of my life and completed the program.”