The Documentary All American Family Portrays Deaf Culture

The story of an all-deaf football team delivers a compelling portrayal of how deaf individuals view their identity. Watch the film here.

By Nils Skudra

This afternoon I took the opportunity to watch a truly amazing short documentary entitled All American-Family, directed by Andrew Jenks. This film examines the lives of the Eagles, an all-deaf football team at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, CA, which has earned a reputation as one of the state’s top-ranking teams among both Deaf and hearing schools.

Narrated almost completely in sign language, it delivers a compelling portrayal of how deaf individuals view their identity, which has played an important role in bringing the team members together with a strong sense of community and empowerment.

The documentary opens with footage of the Eagles team on the football field while the national anthem is being sung, and a striking feature of this moment is that the cheerleaders are performing the song in sign language for the team members so that they can decipher the words. Since the performance of the national anthem is a common practice that we take for granted, the thought of some players’ inability to hear the song is something that does not occur to most sports fans.

The cheerleading team’s use of sign language is therefore a remarkable innovation that the California School for the Deaf has introduced on behalf of the football team since this demonstrates sensitivity and empathy for the particular challenges of the team members, and sports fans may hopefully come away with a new sense of understanding.

The audience is subsequently introduced to Zane Pedersen, the team captain and a senior at the school, and his younger brother Jax. Through sign language, they elaborate upon their experiences as members of a family that has had four generations of deaf individuals, including their grandfather and parents – Zane’s and Jax’s brother Caleb is the only hearing member.

Their mother Jamie reflects that she was born to hearing parents, and therefore she felt that when she gave birth to Zane, she had passed “a great gift” to him. This is an intriguing observation since there is a widespread perception of deafness as a disability which inhibits people from grasping many of the social cues around them and from reaching their full potential. However, among members of the deaf community, it is considered a gift since deaf individuals have an ability to process information in unique ways that are not available to many hearing individuals.

One of the issues confronting the deaf community that the documentary addresses is the question of cochlear implants, which, advocates have maintained, will benefit deaf individuals by enabling them to hear more of the sensory input from people around them and from the environment.

However, Jax asserts that these advocates “push too much without respect for Deaf culture” and insists that he is happy to function without the use of a cochlear implant. This statement lends further credence to the idea of deafness as a gift in the deaf community since its members have fostered a culture based on their shared identity, providing them with a common form of communication and sense of bonding. Although some members of the deaf community have adopted cochlear implants due to the hearing advantages of the device, there is a strong feeling among other members that using the implant deprives deaf individuals of their unique identity, which they should cherish rather than shun.

The sense of bonding within the deaf community is movingly illustrated by the documentary’s focus on the Eagles team. The members are shown to be highly supportive of each other and display a close camaraderie on the field and in the locker room. This is particularly demonstrated by a pep talk that Zane gives to his teammates, which he delivers in sign language together with inspired vocalizations to emphasize his points, and the players respond in kind to convey their approval. The team subsequently huddles and communicates their motto through sign language and physical gestures before going out onto the field.

The documentary concludes with Zane reflecting upon his involvement with the team, and he states in sign language that he is very proud of his identity. This is a highly poignant ending note since it conveys a powerful message about how members of the deaf community refute the prevailing mainstream view of deafness.

Instead of letting it define them negatively, they have made it a badge of pride which they not only wear in their daily interactions with each other, but on the sports field as well. The solidarity and closeness of the Eagles team has captured the hearts of the local community, and thus far they have achieved a remarkable winning streak of 48-0.

In summation, All-American Family is a profoundly moving short documentary that members of the disability community can take inspiration from. I would highly recommend watching it online.

Nils Skudra and Jackson

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

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