A life-changing injury in Vietnam forced David to adapt and overcome, taking him from combat to the courtroom.
After a happy childhood in upstate New York followed by college and ROTC, David Szumowski had his sights set on military service. He joined the Army in 1969 and was deployed to Vietnam to lead a tank platoon. David’s life took a sharp turn when his platoon was attacked. He was seriously injured and had to confront life without sight.
In his recently published memoir, Reach for More: A Journey from Loss to Love AND Fulfillment, David recounts his challenges coping with loss and emotional distress, forging an alternate career path, finding love, and harnessing resilience and perseverance. It started with his training as a soldier:
“I envisioned a steady path through life seeking success and happiness. The Vietnam War nearly derailed me from those goals. My faith, family, friendships, opportunities and determination helped me to overcome obstacles and realize a satisfying life. This is my story of achievement by never giving up.”
I recently spoke with David to learn more about his extraordinary journey from soldier in Vietnam to Superior Court Judge in San Diego.
Navigating the Long Road Back
At age 23, he accepted the fact that his eyesight wouldn’t return. After recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center, he began a 16-week program at a VA rehabilitation hospital to learn orientation, daily living skills, cane use, and braille. Reading was possible with a talking book machine – a record player for recorded books on disks – which set him on a path to read over 5,000 books during the next 50 years. During his rehabilitation, his thoughts turned to career options, and he applied to law school.
David was one of five blind students accepted to the University of Denver Law School in 1970. He managed the course work by recording lectures on cassette tapes, listening to pre-recorded textbooks on reel-to-reel tapes, and hiring other students to read to him. After graduation, he started looking for employment; however, he hadn’t fully come to terms with the mental and emotional challenges of his blindness, and he suffered from what we now know as PTSD. He fell into a period of alcohol abuse and needed purpose and direction.
A Fresh Start in San Diego
He eventually realized that he had to change before any employer would hire him. He moved to San Diego with a positive attitude toward his job search, but also uncertainty about his confidence and ability that came through in interviews. As a result, employers weren’t very receptive. The VA, however, was welcoming to David. He had worked there for three years counseling other veterans and started the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program. He finally decided it was time to take the California State Bar exam and find work as a lawyer.
A Stellar Track Record as a Deputy District Attorney and Superior Court Judge
With a guide dog by his side, David went on to serve twelve years as a prosecutor in the San Diego District Attorney’s office and another eighteen years as a judge: “As a blind attorney, research would always involve the help of someone else. Technological advances today allow for access to almost all research with computers adapted for a blind user using a speech program. There are also sophisticated scanners that convert text to speech. A technically competent blind person today can do most research and writing unassisted. As a trial attorney, I had help preparing the case, but in court, it was all up to me. I knew the questions to ask the witnesses, I listened carefully to their testimony, needed to think on my feet when addressing the court, and marshalled my arguments to the court or jury.”
Technology Opens Doors for People with Disabilities
Technology has made businesses realize that there are alternate ways of completing tasks rather than one traditional way. “A person with a disability must be technically proficient and understand the tools that are out there. Machines are available to assist those of us with special needs, and we need to learn how to use them. If you don’t, you are creating an obstacle for yourself,” says David.
David uses a wide variety of devices today with features that have evolved significantly over time, from NLS talking book players and Victor Reader Stream to the JAWS screen reader with human-like voices. He has been a Bookshare member for ten years where he listens to audiobooks at almost double the normal reading speed.
How Can Businesses Be More Inclusive to Persons with Disabilities?
Employers used to focus on the bottom line and how much money a person with disabilities would cost in terms of extra support or lower productivity. They would wrongly conclude that a person with a disability was incapable of doing the job (or can’t be done well enough). Fortunately, that attitude is changing, especially with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and disability organizations that advocate equality and inclusion in all aspects of life.
Advice from a Life Well-Lived
David is grateful for the help and support he received from his loving wife Janice, family, friends, and faith. His advice: “Have a good support network for personal and emotional well-being; look for opportunities and don’t be afraid to take them; be technically proficient; don’t quit.”
So what’s next? He says he won’t do any writing for a while, but instead will enjoy his sixth guide dog, Speedwell, play golf, travel with his wife, and savor his well-earned retirement.
In honor of Veterans Day, Benetech salutes all veterans and thanks them for their loyal and unselfish service.