An Interview with David Sorensen
Author of Between Two Worlds: My Life as a Child of Deaf Adults
GU Press: Between Two Worlds is your story as a hearing child of Deaf adults, or Coda. Your heritage language is ASL, and you were raised in the Deaf community—yet as a hearing person, you experienced that world as well. How did that affect you growing up?
Sorensen: I had two distinct periods in my life involving the Deaf world. The first was up to the age of 14—my childhood and adolescence. The second period was my renewed involvement and professional career with Deaf people as an adult.
The first involved my acculturation into the Deaf world. This was when I learned about Deaf people in the most natural way . . . by living and learning. I did not question the Deaf world and Deaf culture. It was most natural to me. I learned the rules, customs, and values by being a part of the culture. I learned to sign before anyone recognized ASL as a language. I learned what my role was as the first-born, including the responsibility of being my parents’ interpreter (until my sister was old enough to take over that responsibility—and not by choice). I learned about the various Deaf clubs where my parents went almost every week to meet and catch-up on what was going on in the community. And I learned about how important sports were to the community. My father would tell me some of his stories about traveling by train throughout the US playing other basketball teams.
The second period of my involvement with the Deaf world came after a period of about 8 years. That is when I met and became friends with Barbara Pritt while working for the Arizona Department of Transportation. She loved my stories about growing up in the Deaf world. It was Barbara who encouraged and eventually persuaded me to leave my job and pursue a degree in psychology. This is where I started my journey to where I am now. I received my degree from Northern Arizona University and went on to earn my master’s and doctorate. I have taught in community colleges; I have been a counselor at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (ASDB) in Tucson; I was cofounder of a charter school for deaf students; I was a state coordinator for deaf people in Nevada; I developed and assisted developing a residential treatment and Deaf group home, and I was an owner of a small mental health agency in Albuquerque that specialized in serving deaf clients.
Perhaps I was destined to meet Barbara so she could give me that proverbial push, which led me to work for and with other Deaf professionals in my community as well as throughout the US. But, most importantly, it provided me an opportunity to reflect on what I experienced and learned in my childhood and adolescence.
GU Press: You went through a period of rebellion in your teenage years. You even moved out of your parents’ house and went to live with another family member. What drove you to disengage from your immediate family?
Sorensen: I was a “rebellious” person ever since I can remember. I was provided with as much space and rope as could be afforded. I can remember my father and one or two of his friends would go to Los Angeles to play basketball. Once we landed on the top floor of the building, where the basketball court was located, I was left to my own devices . . . freedom to run amok with impunity. This also happened when I accompanied my father to his softball games. I was either in the dugout or roaming the softball diamonds at the park . . . without supervision.
As a young kid in elementary school, my mother worked the swing shift, which meant she was asleep when I got up in the mornings. I watched television, made my own breakfast, prepared my lunch, and when the time came, I was off to school. Let me remind you I was in second, third grade, and upward. Much of the time, I was left alone during the daylight hours.
As I went to middle school and through the start of high school at Sunny Hills in Fullerton, California, I was not the most trustworthy person. I had bouts of petty thievery at a store. My parents always knew who had gone through their purse or wallet. I also started smoking while in junior high.
All of these events and behaviors accumulated to the point that my parents asked my grandmother, who was about 60 years old, if I could live with her. Perhaps going to the Mormon Church and living in a different community might help solve their son’s delinquent behavior. My grandmother agreed. It was not a matter of choice that I disengaged with my family. It was possibly out of necessity for my parents (or for me), but I loved it!
GU Press: You had a difficult time as a young adult finding a path forward. You struggled in school, experienced a stint of unsuccessful military service, and were married and divorced by the age of 25. Then you tried college again, and ended up earning a doctorate with honors. What got you on track?
Sorensen: The year 1975 was a tough one. I was going through a divorce and had to make some decisions. I knew I did not want to do physical labor—that I knew! There were pivotal periods in my life that guided me on my journey. What Barbara Pritt had said was repeatedly going through my psyche: “David, you’re not like the other people. Go to the university.” I was good with people and knew the Deaf community and thought I should use those skills to work with Deaf people. I took the time to reflect on where I’d been and where I wanted to go. I did have some things going for me. My independence and responsibility from an early age taught me to rely on myself. My absorption of Deaf culture and watching my respected parents make their way also gave me skills and role models. It was then that I set a career path and stuck to it.
GU Press: You have served in several positions related to the Deaf community: mental health therapist, educator, community advocate. What did you enjoy the most?
Sorensen: There are two professional career periods that I enjoyed.
I was a counselor at ASDB. I had the awesome opportunity to work with our students—not only deaf students but also blind students. I believed that we must have hands-on, experiential opportunities. I was involved in sponsoring our middle school boys group where we learned about gender equality. I was also involved in our Native American Club. We met as a club weekly, and we sponsored the annual Native American PowWow. I taught a high school course in leadership. Our goal was to re-establish a Junior NAD. I believed we needed to get our students in the community. We participated in Tucson Meet Yourself and the Tucson Mariachi Festival. Our students set up concessions and interacted with the community. These are the events I feel very proud of.
I owned a private mental health agency, Southwest Services for the Deaf (SWSD). I had a hand in developing a residential treatment and group home; I consulted with the local school district and various state and local agencies; I contracted with the state to provide community access and vocational services for individuals on the developmental disability waiver program. I also provided advocacy and mental health therapies for individuals. As a private provider through SWSD, I had my fingers on the pulse of many services. That is what I enjoy the most: mentoring and imparting wisdom on others in the field.
GU Press: You seem to have found a place of fluidity between the Deaf and hearing worlds. You also consider yourself an ambassador between the older and younger generations of Deaf people. What knowledge do you want to pass on to younger generations?
Sorensen: Between Two Worlds shares my unique experiences as a Coda and passes on the rich cultural past shared by the American Deaf community. I want to say that I believe I am an ambassador between Deaf and hearing people, as well as between older and younger generations of Deaf people. I also want to acknowledge that there are many ambassadors of my generation who share the same unique experiences.
For the younger generation, do not forget you have a beautiful cultural past. For example, there has been a shift from face-to-face communication to technology. Back in the day, we had to drive to see friends, drive to the Deaf club. These face-to-face experiences were the heart of Deaf culture. We must seek and embrace living between two worlds.