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Utahn honored for longtime advocacy for the deaf

Published: Saturday, March 29 2014 4:20 p.m. MDT

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TAYLORSVILLE — Some people choose to spend most of their lives using their voice to speak for those unable to advocate for themselves.

For one Utah man, that "voice" helped change the lives of thousands who were rendered invisible to many in everyday society.

David Mortensen has lead advocacy efforts for the deaf and hearing impaired in Utah for more than 40 years. While his work was primarily done behind the scenes to little fanfare, his lasting contributions speak volumes.

Mortensen's work was recognized Saturday in a ceremony by the Sanderson Community Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Utah Association of the Deaf.

Speaking through voice and American Sign Language, Marilyn Call, director of the Utah Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, praised Mortensen’s tireless efforts through the years to fight for deaf rights in education, the workplace, interpreting and medical fields.

He actively solicited help through district representatives and senators on important issues relevant to the deaf community, Call said, including the establishment of the deaf center.

Mortensen's other accomplishments included the state's first teletypewriter program and the addition of two deaf people to serve on the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind Institutional Council. He was also involved in the getting a state law passed to provide electronic communication or relay service for the deaf.

In 1994, Mortensen successfully lobbied the state Legislature to recognize American Sign Language as an official language and later helped establish the state’s Interpreter Training Program at Salt Lake Community College, as well as the interpreter service operated by the Utah Association of the Deaf. His work also helped provide qualified interpreters for deaf medical patients and clients, Call explained.

“(Today, people) can go to a medical appointment and know that they have an interpreter who has been trained in the medical field,” she said. “(Today, people) are not stuck in jail because of a bad interpreter who showed up in court.”

Because of Mortensen’s efforts, the hearing impaired can fully participate in local town hall meetings or cultural events, she said.

“By law, it (has) to be provided,” Call said.

Through an interpreter, Mortensen, 82, said he was “overwhelmed” by the recognition. He said his ultimate goal all along was to provide deaf people with equal access to everything hearing people had.

“Deaf people can do anything (just) as anyone else except hear,” he said. “(We just want opportunities) for better jobs, communication barriers being broken down and to be involved in things that people who can hear are involved in but don’t think of including deaf people.”

Born in 1931, Mortensen was initially able to hear and learned to speak, but he became deaf after a bout with scarlet fever at age 4. The challenges he faced growing up stoked his determination and led him to become an advocate for the deaf.

In his professional life, Mortensen was the first person in Utah to become a certified social worker. The married father of five children set a prime example of how to be a leader and a fighter, said daughter Kristi Mortensen, 56, who is also deaf.

“(He is) a good reminder for us that when we see a barrier, we need to do something and speak up,” she said through an interpreter. “We have all kinds of accessibility and technology today. Our lives are much better because of him.”

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com, Twitter: JasenLee1

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