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Hearing Health 2019

Marlee Matlin’s Fight for Better Accessibility

Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin

Mediaplanet had the pleasure of speaking with Academy Award-winning actress and Deaf advocate Marlee Matlin about her success and experience on screen, and her continued fight for increased accessibility.

Mediaplanet: You became Deaf at 18 months of age. Can you share a bit about your experience growing up Deaf?

Marlee Matlin: Growing up Deaf proved to be challenging, but with an attitude of courage, combined with the desire to dream that was instilled in me by my parents, I found I could overcome any barrier and be successful if I set my mind to it. My parents taught me to never take no for an answer, and to never let doctors and specialists define me by my deafness. And they treated me as any child should be treated — with love and respect. 

I first learned to speak when I was three years old, but when that proved to be limiting in terms of communication, my mother took me to my first sign language class with a Deaf teacher when I was five years old. That’s when the world opened up to me. Words flowed from my hands and into my eyes, from those who could sign. I carry sign language with me today and, combined with my hearing aids and some speaking, I can go anywhere and accomplish anything.

What role has impacted you the most and what is the current state of Deaf actors in Hollywood?

My first role in Children of a Lesser God, made the biggest impact on me because it was my first introduction to the career I have chosen for the past 33 years. When I won the Oscar, I thought that Hollywood would finally embrace the many talented Deaf actors and actresses out there and that roles would become available to them, whether written Deaf or not. But in the 32 years since I won my Academy Award, the opportunities have not changed to reflect the current number of people who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing or disabled. 

Although people who are Deaf or disabled make up 20% of the general population, only 5% of roles in film and TV feature people who are Deaf or disabled. Of this 5%, 95% of those roles are played by people who aren’t actually Deaf or disabled. The wave of diversity and inclusivity has yet to reach those of us who yearn to stand on equal footing with our hearing peers in the entertainment business. Fortunately, technology has allowed for people who have been shut out to make their own content and produce their own ideas. Slowly, Hollywood is coming around and noticing us and making more and more roles available.

I was motivated by the sense of fairness and equality I got from my parents, teachers, and mentors, who told me that nothing should be denied to me simply because I was Deaf.

You were a huge catalyst in the enforcement of closed captioning across streaming platforms, enhancing media accessibility. What motivated you to do this?

Two things motivated me to push for closed captioning. One is I work in an industry where I need to be able to see everything that is film/TV-related. Without captions, I was unable to. 

More importantly, I was motivated by the sense of fairness and equality I got from my parents, teachers, and mentors, who told me that nothing should be denied to me simply because I was Deaf. By extension, I felt no Deaf person should be denied access simply for being Deaf. Since I had an international platform as the first Deaf person to win an Academy Award, I wanted to pass along the lessons I had learned that Deaf people should never be denied access, no matter the setting. 

For me, closed captions were easily attainable and achievable — it was just a matter of will on the part of broadcasters. With my platform, I successfully bent that will in favour of the millions of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. Today we have captioning everywhere!

How has technology impacted your day to day life as someone who is Deaf? How has it changed in the last 25 years?

Technology has virtually levelled the playing field for people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. With texting, video relay, email, and voice-activated captioning, there are no longer barriers to communication.

What do you think needs to be done to create a more accessible and inclusive world?

Communication is key. No one should be denied access to full communication. Technology is important as well, as it can help tear down barriers. Most importantly, attitudes that reflect that each of us is equal regardless of our abilities or perceived “dis” abilities must exist for our world to be 100% accessible and inclusive.  

I don’t consider myself to be living with Deafness. I’m a person who happens to be Deaf.

What inspired you to speak so openly about your experiences living with Deafness?

I don’t consider myself to be living with Deafness. I’m a person who happens to be Deaf. I’ve shared my experiences because I learned a long time ago that staying silent ensures that nothing will change. As long as there is inequality, as long as Deaf people aren’t afforded the same opportunities as their hearing peers, I will speak of my experiences as a means to change attitudes and to remove prejudices and discrimination against the millions who are Deaf or hard of hearing. 

What is your advice for anyone who faces a barrier in life?

Never give up — and never let anyone define who you are, what you should do, and what you can do. I put all of that into a formula that I share in every appearance I make: Courage + Dreams = Success. Gather the courage to follow your dreams and you can certainly realize success. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What do you have coming up next?

I’m looking forward to coming onboard a feature called Coda, which was adapted from a successful French film about a young teenage girl who has Deaf parents and who yearns to be a singer. You can also see me in Limetown on Facebook Watch, produced by Jessica Biel and coming this fall. I have a few passion projects that I’m producing as well, one of which is about the mother of Prince Philip, who was Deaf and who, unbeknownst to her family, rescued a family of Jews during WWII. It’s a fascinating true story and one which I’m very excited to share. 

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