Marlee Matlin's World of Possibilities

The Oscar winner, deaf since she was 18 months old, hails technology for broadening the lives -- and ambitions -- of the disabled

By John Williams

I'm often asked about how a deaf person can function in a hearing world. Look no further than Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin. The 35-year-old actor is perhaps the world's most renowned deaf person. Her most recent, recurring role was that of a White House adviser on the TV drama The West Wing. Using a variety of assistive technology, Matlin lives her life to the fullest. Recently, I chatted with her about the professional and communications issues surrounding deafness.


  Matlin lost her hearing to a fever associated with roseola, a form of measles, when she was 18 months old. "I began acting on stage when I was 7 years old. My first role was as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at Chicago's Center on Deafness in Northbrook, Ill.," she recalls. A native of nearby Morton, Ill., Matlin made her first adult stage appearance in the supporting role of Lydia in Children of A Lesser God at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 1985. Two years later, starring as Sarah, she won the Oscar for Best Actress in the movie adaptation of the play. Today, Matlin still prefers to work in film and TV. "Stage work would mean Broadway or London, and that would take me too far away from my family," she says.

The actor has been signing since she was 5 years old (she learned to speak before then). "When I learned to sign and speak at the same time, the whole world opened up to me. That's the beauty of encouraging kids who are deaf to use whatever it takes to communicate," she says. "At work, I take advantage of the sign-language interpreters that the studio/production company provides."

In her dressing room, Matlin has a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, or TDD, and a television with closed-caption technology. At home, she has a series of signaling devices to alert her when the doorbell rings, the phone rings, or when her new baby cries.


  More and more, she says, she uses the Internet, Instant Messaging, and e-mail. Like many in the field of assistive technology, she sees the Internet as a Great Equalizer, putting people with disabilities on the same footing as everybody else. "It's truly a barrier-free environment," she says. Matlin spends hours daily on the Net writing to family and friends, answering fan mail, and penning notes to herself. Matlin says she can't imagine a deaf person surviving without access to assistive technology and the Internet. She notes that Vinton Cerf, one of the Internet's founders, helped to develop e-mail as a way to communicate with his deaf wife, Sigrid (who has since had a cochlear implant).

Matlin knows she is a role model for deaf and hearing-impaired children and adults. Her advice to them is simple: Follow their dreams. Look to others for inspiration, she counsels. For example, Thomas Edison was a genius who was first hearing-impaired and later deaf. "I hope I inspire people who hear. Hearing people have the ability to remove barriers that prevent deaf people from achieving their dreams," she says.

What wisdom does she have for those wishing to make a living in the arts: "Finish school first and get some good training. But the most important thing is getting a thick skin. Talent is a major part of it all, but when others are judging your talent, you have to be prepared for both success and failure. And you have to want it. No actor I know is a success who hasn't wanted it with their entire heart and soul."


  In a time when 70% of working-age people with disabilities are jobless, Matlin says she does not recall being discriminated against because of her deafness when working. "I've come to accept that in acting, it's all about casting," she says. She does not understand why employers fear hiring deaf people, especially with today's technology.

Matlin laments that most hearing people have never met a deaf person. All it takes to realize that a deaf person can rise to any task is a little awareness and interaction. All it takes is a little awareness. "I like to say that the greatest handicap of deafness does not lie in the ear, it lies in the mind. I hope that through my example, such as my role on The West Wing, I can help change attitudes on deafness and prove we can really do everything...except hear," she says. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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Edited by Douglas Harbrecht