According to Dawson, completing that program turned his life, and his attitude, around. “As a high school athlete, I wasn’t the best student… but all of that changed in college. I fell in love with learning, and I now had skills to operate more independently. I moved into an apartment with my one of my brothers, began dating and my grades shot up – something brand new for me. I loved history, but had no clue how a degree in history was going to help me make a living.”
Dawson decided to take a couple of law classes, which he excelled at, and after getting his undergraduate degree, was accepted to the University of Washington School of Law. He went on to intern for the Washington State Office of the Attorney General where he was offered a job once he completed law school. However, he wanted to prove to himself that he could get a job with a prestigious private law firm despite being blind, and eventually, he landed a job with the second biggest firm in the state – though it was no easy task.
“They were very reluctant to bring me in,” Dawson said. “I went through round after round of interviews. I’m sure they were wondering just how I’d perform in the courtroom, or if there were potential liability issues by hiring me. The process just dragged on, and finally, I told them, ‘Look, bring me in, and if you decide it was a mistake, I’ll just leave… no worries.’”
It wasn’t a mistake, and Dawson proved to himself and the partners that he could do his job at a very high level. However, he found the work less than satisfying. “Truth is, I hated it! There was limited adaptive computer technology for the blind in those days, so I worked an insane number of hours.”
In 1990, he started his own law practice. Again, while he excelled in the law, most of the cases were the accident, whiplash-related variety. “And, I felt I was wasting a lot of time doing something I really didn’t love,” he said.
What Dawson loved was helping and mentoring visually impaired individuals in any way he could. “I volunteered for various Washington State Commission for the Blind committees acting as an advocate for the blind. And finally, it hit me… what I really loved doing was social work. So, I went back to school and earned a master’s degree in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling from San Diego State University, and by my late-thirties, was ready to make a significant career course correction.”
Committed to giving back, Dawson became a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the California Department of Rehabilitation in San Diego. He served the blind and those with other disabilities in his role as a counselor and then a supervisor. His passion for helping others, along with his organizational, political and legal acumen, helped him move quickly up the ranks in San Diego. In his current position as district administrator for the Blind Field Services Division in San Diego, he oversees over 60 counselors, and nine supervisors in 14 different districts that serve around 7,000 blind or visually impaired people throughout the state.
“My job is what it’s always been, only on a much larger scale,” Dawson said. “To help the disabled have a chance to lead fully independent lives – and have the same opportunities to reach their dreams as any other American.”
According to Dawson, there is still widespread discrimination and stereotyping of the disabled in today’s society. “Sadly, the biggest public misconception concerning disabled people is that they are not as capable or they are going to be sick and miss more days of work. Both assumptions are just plain wrong. The fact is disabled employees actually miss less work, are more loyal and work harder than their so-called ‘normal’ counterparts. Part of my job is to educate employers to the fact that disabled people, when properly trained and given a chance, make awesome hires.”
Dawson’s wife, Dawn, also works in the social arena as a Diversity Civil Rights Officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and they have an 8-year-old daughter named Olivia. And, he hasn’t let being blind get in the way of his love for the outdoors. “I still go skiing and love taking rugged 30 to 40-mile tandem bike rides. Most importantly, I’m making my life count for something by doing what I love – helping others.”