Academy Award-winning actress, best-selling author, finalist on Donald Trump’s “The Celebrity Apprentice,” guest star on television shows ranging from “Law & Order: SVU” to “Blue’s Clues,” activist, wife and mother of four — as evidenced by her extensive résumé, Marlee Matlin has held numerous roles over the course of her career, despite being Deaf.
“Deaf people can do anything they want to do,” Matlin told an audience at the College last week. “The only thing they can’t do is hear.”
This quote came from a statement given by I. King Jordan, the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University, the world’s only university specifically for deaf students.
Overcoming obstacles and pursuing one’s dreams was the focus of Matlin’s presentation at the College on the evening of Wednesday, April 4, as part of the Deaf-Hearing Connection’s second annual Deaf Awareness Day.
Joined on stage by her longtime interpreter Jack Jason, Matlin signed to the crowd using American Sign Language, accompanied by a projector so all in the Kendall Hall audience could see.
Topics ranged from her acting career to advocacy work, which currently includes trying to make contacting 911 in an emergency accessible through text messaging, since this is currently not an option.
Matlin previously lobbied in Washington for closed captioning, which is now guaranteed for all television content placed on the Internet.
Diagnosed as Deaf at 18 months, Matlin was kept at home by her family instead of sending her away to a school, which was the suggestion of physicians at the time.
Matlin credits her family for instilling her with confidence, saying, “Despite the many barriers I faced, I was inspired by my family to dream big.”
Her family also taught her how to combat criticism and teasing from other children while growing up in their Chicago suburb in the ’70s.
“Growing up as a Matlin meant you had an answer for everything,” she said, which included taking her father’s suggestion and saying her hearing aids were bubble gum in her ears. Her brothers attributed how she spoke to a mysterious accent resulting from parents who were foreign spies.
“I envisioned my life as one long episode of ‘The Brady Bunch,’” Matlin said,
noting that in her mind, she was Marcia Brady. If applying this analogy to her present life, she jokingly said she now plays the role of Alice the maid, as she cares and cleans for her children.
Matlin said that her Deafness has become “more humorous than distressing” lately, citing examples from her recent appearances on reality television competitions, such as “The Celebrity Apprentice” where a co-star went to whisper in her ear despite the fact that she couldn’t hear them. A flight attendant also saw her and Jason speaking sign language once and mistakenly brought Matlin a menu in Braille.
Things turned more serious, as she said, “No matter what level of abilities you possess, all of us not only deserve respect, but we deserve to be heard. It’s about believing in yourself and watching your dreams come true.”
Matlin is the youngest person to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, which she received at age 21 for her 1986 role in “Children of a Lesser God.” Dean Mark Kiselica noted in his introduction that this movie was where he personally became a Matlin fan.
“But seriously, life is good,” Matlin signed. “Despite predictions of critics in Hollywood that I would never work again after my Oscar, I’m still here.”
She is the only Deaf performer to receive an Academy Award.
Matlin’s autobiography “I’ll Scream Later,” published in 2009, appeared on the best-seller list and she autographed copies of the book for guests after the presentation.
Speaking of books, Matlin told the crowd that as a child she turned to Judy Bloom books for comfort, and then her mother helped her discover her love of acting.
Matlin participated in a production of “The Wizard of Oz” at a community theatre for hearing and Deaf children, where she went into the audition insisting that she would be Dorothy and got the role.
This was the beginning of an acting career, where Matlin has since guest-starred on numerous television shows, including “Desperate Housewives,” “Seinfeld,” “The L Word,” “Family Guy,” “West Wing” and most recently, “Switched at Birth.”
Matlin told The Signal in an interview after the show that “Switched at Birth” has been her favorite role as a guest star so far, saying, “Because all of the things the show has incorporated, which is aspects of the Deaf community and American Sign Language. The fact that there are several cast members who are Deaf. That hasn’t been seen in television history and I’m really proud to be a part of that show.
She concluded her presentation by sharing a mathematical equation, a sum of success, which she had the audience sign with her: “courage + dreams = success.”
All College Theatre, Women In Learning and Leadership, Delta Zeta, Alpha Phi Omega, the Juggling Club, the College Union Board and TCNJ Cheerleaders were all co-sponsors of the Deaf Awareness Day, which featured a panel earlier in the afternoon with six Deaf students from Neptune High School.
According to Deaf-Hearing Connection president Jeni Doughan, the Neptune students told the audience about a special program and opportunities provided by their high school, allowing them to play sports like soccer, bowling and swimming.
With interpreters, the students discussed their friends, home life and post-high school plans.
“Every one of the students had ambitions that were not limited by their deafness,” said Doughan, sophomore English major, who noted the best part of the presentation was a full Library Auditorium of attendees.
The faculty also told personal stories about learning ASL and gave advice about becoming teachers of the Deaf, Doughan said.
“It was great to see so many TCNJ students in attendance, especially interacting with the students from Katzenbach or Neptune after every event,” she continued. “I’m so happy with how the event turned out.”
Not only did the panel go well, but Matlin’s lecture filled nearly the entire lower level of Kendall.
“I thought Deaf Awareness Day was a huge success that would not have been possible without the hard work of all the members of the Deaf-Hearing Connection. We’ve been planning this event since the summer and it was exciting for it all to come together. Both of the events were well-attended“ Doughan said in an email, adding that Deaf Awareness Day is a tradition they hope to continue.
In her interview with The Signal, Matlin delved deeper into advice for college students who are trying to achieve goals but find barriers in their way.
“There will always be obstacles in your way, no matter what type of life you lead,” she said. “For every single person there is an obstacle. It’s just a matter of learning how to overcome them, learning how to walk around them and learning to maneuver around them.”