A hearing son in deaf family: 'I'd rather be deaf'

Story highlights

  • Kaleb Pedersen is the only person in his immediate family who's not deaf
  • His unique status allows him to know the hearing and deaf worlds
  • The Pedersens believe deafness is just as rewarding as hearing

(CNN)Meet the Pedersen family: parents Rod and Jamie; and the children: Zane, Jax and Kaleb.

They were all born deaf, except Kaleb — who at age 20, is the oldest child.
    "Obviously, I didn't choose to be the only hearing one," Kaleb said on the phone from their home near San Francisco in Pleasanton, California. Thanks to his upbringing, Kaleb prefers Deaf culture over the hearing world. "There's more of a sense of belonging in the Deaf culture. They just feel closer together than how hearing people act with each other."
    The Pedersens are featured in CNN Films' new Digital Short titled, "All-American Family." They're among an estimated 1 million so-called "functionally deaf" people in the United States, and 70 million worldwide, according to federal and United Nations stats.
    Long-established deaf schools in and around places such as San Francisco, Rochester, New York; Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles have led to large pockets of deaf residents in those cities. Many hold on tight to their Deaf identity and Deaf culture.
    Jamie Crowley is deaf and is the mother of two deaf sons.
    That's "Deaf" with a capital "D." That's how the community spells it.
    Since childhood, Kaleb's ability to hear -- along with his command of American Sign Language -- has defined much of his role in the family. His first language was sign language -- English came later. "He's like half deaf inside and hearing on the outside," his mom Jamie Crowley wrote CNN in an e-mail. "Kaleb is naturally our ears."
    When the family meets at restaurants, Kaleb orders for everybody.
    When the doorbell rings, he answers it.
    When hearing people ask Kaleb annoying questions such as, "Do you ever wish your family could hear, like you?" -- he doesn't get upset.
    "I don't wish that they could hear, because there's nothing wrong with them," he said. "They're born that way and they can do anything that any hearing person could do. I don't see any reason for them to change."
    "If anything, I'd rather be deaf."
    Does that sound shocking?
    It shouldn't, say the Pedersens.
    If there's one thing they want you to know, it's this: They're fine just the way they are. They're not "broken" or "impaired."
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    "The biggest threat to our community is the pathological view ... that something is wrong with us," Crowley wrote. When hearing parents find out their baby is deaf, sometimes their first response is that they "need to fix it."
    Crowley takes issue with some parents who let doctors implant hearing devices in their deaf children's ears in an attempt to allow them to regain partial hearing.
    "More and more deaf babies are undergoing cochlear implants and being deprived of learning American Sign Language," Crowley says. About 324,000 people worldwide have had these implants, according to federal stats. They've been FDA-approved for children as young as 1 since 2000.
    Here's how cochlear implants work: a tiny microphone worn behind the ear sends sounds to an electronic speech processor which turns them into electric impulses, directly stimulating the auditory nerve which then sends the signals to the brain.
    The power of cochlear implants went viral across social media when video surfaced of a baby hearing his mother's voice for the first time. The child's resulting smile is positively heartwarming.
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    In another case, a hearing father who had his 10-month-old deaf son outfitted with cochlear implants admitted it was a tough call.
    "The biggest struggle that my wife and I had was, we're making a choice for our child who at this point doesn't have a say in it," the father, Korey Bowe told Rochester, Minnesota's KAAL-TV. "You always struggle with ... is this something he or she would want?'"
    Crowley's teenage son Zane doesn't want it. A quarterback at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, Zane did try using a hearing aid for a while. "I loved it because I could hear different sounds," Zane says in the film. "But later on I realized that it wasn't the most popular idea. It was kind of the uncool thing to do. I've been asked [hypothetically] if I would get a cochlear implant and I always say no. I think they push it too much without respecting Deaf culture."
    Crowley celebrated Zane's deafness 18 years ago when he came into the world. It made her happy. "Being deaf is who I am — and now Zane is too." It's a bond no one can take away, she wrote CNN.
    Deafness is often passed to children from parents carrying specific genes. Other people become deaf as a result of various diseases.

    Born deaf to hearing parents

    Crowley's parents were a hearing couple. When they learned she was deaf, they moved the family from San Francisco to the East Bay area to "mainstream" her at a public school. There, she learned to speak and read lips, instead of communicating by signing.
    "I hated it more than anything when people asked why I spoke differently," she recalled. She would explain her speaking voice by making up stories that she was from Sweden. She didn't learn to sign until she met a deaf person in college.  
    "My life changed from that day on," Crowley told CNN. "I finally felt like this is where I belong -- a place where I didn't have to pretend. I didn't have to fake that I understood what a hearing person just said. I'm not getting left out or missing any of the conversation at all."
    That experience solidified her realization that deaf children should be educated in separate schools. For her, it's part of defending Deaf culture.
    "We are working together to preserve our deaf schools," Crowley said. "This is where deaf kids grow up together. They have amazing deaf role models and access to language, everywhere."

    Deaf schools influence deaf culture

    In fact it was a deaf school in Washington, D.C. that proved to be the site of a watershed moment in Deaf cultural change back in 1988. Students at Gallaudet University felt like it was high time for a deaf person to lead the school. They staged protests aimed at putting a deaf administrator in charge. Protesters made international headlines when they boycotted classes, hot-wired buses and used them to block campus entrances. They shut down the school and marched to the U.S. Capitol, eventually winning their demands.
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    "It's so easy for outsiders to find things wrong with being deaf," Kaleb Pedersen explained. "But for us, it's so easy to find things to be extremely proud of ... like a sense of belonging and togetherness that we find with one another. When you overcome so many hardships and obstacles put in front of you by the hearing world, how could you not be proud of yourself at that point?"
    Communicating by sign language is a part of the culture that Kaleb especially cherishes. "When you talk to people, you have more eye contact with them. It's more meaningful in that way. You can be a lot more blunt. Things are so much more clear -- and there are no hard feelings."
    Kaleb now works a couple of part-time jobs to save money for college. He's thinking about studying to be an interpreter for the deaf -- perhaps in the medical or legal fields.
    That path would seem perfect for the "ears" of the Pedersen family. Kaleb has already spent many years as a sort of bridge between his deaf friends and family and people who hear. Maybe someday he'll turn his life experience into a profession.
    "I feel lucky to have both hearing and deaf sons," Crowley said. "I've learned so much from both worlds."
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