By Jaeson “Doc” Parsons
The 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act is upon us and society has made incredible leaps forward since the passage of this important piece of legislation. These leaps have been the result of the tireless work of individuals such as Academy Award-winning actress, Marlee Matlin.
Being the only hearing-impaired recipient of this coveted award, she has used her influence as a celebrity to advocate for diversity, inclusion and accessibility.
Born in Morton Grove, Illinois, in the mid-1960s, Matlin’s parents discovered her hearing loss when she was 18 months old. “Rather than dwell on the why, my parents put me on a path where I could excel by what I could do, not by what hearing professionals said I couldn’t do. They treated me just like my hearing brothers by sending me to schools right in the neighborhood,” Matlin said.
What was most critical was the way in which her parents treated her: Loving her as she was and treating her with respect—something that many parents struggle with when having a child with challenges.
Despite her challenges, Matlin aspired to be an actress and attended a program as a child at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts, where she landed her first leading role as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, at the tender age of seven.
In one critical moment in her budding professional career, Matlin met Henry Winkler of Happy Days fame. She walked right up to him after her performance and stated she wanted to be an actor, just like him. His response? “Marlee, sweetheart, you can be whatever you want to be. Don’t let anything stand in your way.”
Matlin followed the advice of “the Fonz” and her heart by continuing the pursuit of her dream, landing roles in many popular television series such as Seinfeld, the West Wing and Switched at Birth, among many others. At 21, Matlin won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God.
Using her success and the visibility of her career in Hollywood, Matlin wanted to harness this for change, as a tool to break the barriers that persist in society.
“It’s important for me, as someone who is deaf and who has been recognized for my professional achievements, to use my visibility to pass along the message that all of us deserve to stand equally, despite the barriers that are out there.
“It’s also my hope that my ‘voice’ can help break down attitudes and misperceptions and bring the deaf and hard of hearing communities as well as those who are otherwise abled into the diversity discussion,” she concluded.
Recently, Matlin developed an app, Marlee Signs, which has impacted millions by helping those learning sign language in developing countries. “American Sign Language is one of the most beautiful and expressive languages out there,” she says.
The interest has always been there but the availability outside of the classroom has been sorely lacking.
“For many, classes or sign language books weren’t available, there were no alternatives,” Matlin said. “I decided to create an app so people could learn the basics of sign language anywhere. It’s been a great success and now there are apps and online videos everywhere.”
On top of developing this new technology, Marlee recently joined with many other celebrities in signing an open letter, calling upon Hollywood to increase casting of actors with disabilities.
“Though people who are deaf, hard of hearing and disabled make up the largest minority in the United States—20 percent—the representation in the media does not reflect that. In fact, we are represented in only 5 percent of roles in film and television.”
Matlin continues, “the time for treating disability as a mask or costume needs to come to an end. And the time, too, to bring deafness and disability into the inclusion and diversity discussion is now,” she said. “That’s why I’ve joined the effort to break down prejudices and misperceptions and create an open dialogue to where film and television stories are told not only in an entertaining fashion but authentically as well.”
Matlin continues to work on projects, including with Patricia Heaton and Lizzie Weiss, who were the creators of Switched at Birth.
This new project is “about a deaf family in the 1970s before there was technology like texting and video phones; it’s hilarious and touching,” she stated.
In addition, Matlin has optioned the story of Princess Alice, the mother-in-law of Queen Elizabeth II, who was deaf and saved countless Jews during World War II, using her deafness as a weapon against the Nazis.
Finally, Matlin has a great script, inspired by a true story, about a football team from the nation’s only liberal arts college for the deaf. “All are wonderful and worthy stories that need to be told. I’m determined to continue knocking on doors and seek others who share my passion until I see them get made!”
Matlin emphasizes that diversity, inclusion and accessibility can be improved through stepping up and speaking up. Using existing legislation and demanding new laws to ensure we continue, as a society, to remove these barriers for our fellow man and woman.
“All those terms basically boil down to equality,” Matlin explained. “It’s up to all of us who have succeeded in overcoming barriers to use any means to communicate that we ALL deserve to stand equally with one another.”