Actress Marlee Matlin did not let her disability stand in the way of stardomShruthi Mohan
I never let disability stop me from what I do and from what I love doing. I was told at a young age never to let others tell you otherwise – what you are and who you are, what you want, and what to dream for. To never accept the word ‘no’ for an answer.
‘No’ is not in my vocabulary – she once said in an interview with the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Deaf since she was 18 months old, molested at the age of 11, she grew up into a child prodigy with her prolific theatrical skills. Fighting all the odds and trying to fit into a childhood that was challenging, to say the least, she constantly raised the bar and broke all stereotypes surrounding deafness.
Marlee Matlin stepped into the spotlight when she received the 1986 Oscar for her brilliant performance in the film Children of a Lesser God.Never before had a deaf person made this kind of splash in Hollywood, and, to top it off, she was the youngest actress to ever receive an Oscar in that category. In an industry that places such a premium on glamour, Marlee has today evolved into a performer par excellence. With a remarkable career as an award-wining actress, she has also appeared in many TV programs and sitcoms. Her sharp performance as a political pollster/consultant on NBC‘s highly acclaimed West Wing presents a fresh role model for all young deaf and hard of hearing kids.
In an interview to Hands and Voices, she dedicated her childhood to her parents and the unconditional support she received from them
My parents just opened the door every day and let me explore the world on my own. I roamed the neighborhood by myself. I met new kids by myself. It was all about intention. Admittedly, I was ‘different’ but my parents and family had answers for everything says Marlee.
Parenting a deaf child did not seem difficult to them, they gracefully took on all the challenges that the disability brought in. Once, her father had a Deaf Child sign installed on her street, and she learned to see it as an opportunity.
At first I wasn’t crazy about the sign. Instead of helping to protect me, I thought of it as telling everyone I was different, that I needed to have ‘help.’ But it was my mom and dad who told me I should look at the sign a different way. That sign said, I’m Marlee ! Want to stop by and say HI? I’ll be your best friend ?
None of the other kids had a sign of their own in the neighborhood and they were right. What a feeling of validation that was!
Marlee is today a happily married woman with four beautiful children. Though her work and her family have kept her on her toes, she has found ways to gracefully toggle between them, playing different, one each at a time. During the same interview, she mentioned how her family has remained to be the source of her success.
Marlee says her first foray into the world of theatre was at the age of seven when she played Dorothy in an International Center on Deafness and the Arts (ICODA) children’s production of The Wizard of Oz. She continued to appear in other theatrical groups during her childhood. During her ICODA performance, she vowed actor and producer Henry Winkler with her performance and grabbed her debut movie Children of a Lessor God. This 1986 release brought her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama and an Academy Award for Best Actress. Post this, her vibe as an actress increased and grabbed many eye-balls.
Other highlights in her career were when she played the role of a deaf widow in Bridge to Silence and when used sign language to perform a revised version of ‘Just the Way You Are’ with lyrics by Tony Geiss. With each varied performance, one better than the other, she evolved into an inspiration for many.
Being an actor was not the only badge she carried. In 2002, Marlee published her first novel, Deaf Child Crossing, which was loosely based on her own childhood. She later wrote and published a sequel titled ‘Nobody’s Perfect’, which was produced on stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in partnership with VSA Arts in October 2007.
Her active involvement in making the World a better place includes working with organisations like; Blue Alert, Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Feeding America, Hillsides, Jason Taylor Foundation, Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, Red Cross, Stand Up To Cancer, Starkey Hearing Foundation, and Starlight Children’s Foundation
Also read : Breaking the silence around deafness
When asked during her ILO interview, if she had a message to people fighting the odds of disability, she said:
Don’t judge. Lend a hand, if they want a helping hand. Do not patronise. And let them think for themselves, let them feel for themselves, let them do their job. Give people with disabilities a chance. Life is too short to think of them otherwise. No one owns this world. Everyone does. Everyone shares equally in this world. Just try to offer respect, a ear, and a chance.
With a stellar acting career and an intention to build a better World, she has stood tall against all odds that life and the disability threw at her. An inspiration to millions and a woman with substance, Marlee Martin is the celebration in a celebrity.