Photo credit: iStockphoto.com (fizkes)
Academy Award-winning actress and advocate Marlee Matlin became deaf at 18 months old. Then one day, at around eight or nine, she was watching TV and noticed a deaf actor signing — or, as she put it, “speaking my language.”
Immediately, she thought, “If she can do it, why can’t I?”
It happened to be an episode of Happy Days with Henry Winkler, who would become her mentor and friend. At 12, he told her: “Follow your heart and follow your dreams, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”
At 21, she starred in her first movie. It was Children of a Lesser God, in which she played the fiercely confident and deaf lead female role. She won an Oscar for Best Actress — becoming the first deaf person and youngest ever to win an Academy Award.
Some critics said that her early success would be the beginning and end of her career. She was deaf, after all.
Thirty-five years and 68 credits later, she proved them wrong. In addition to her Academy Award, she has won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award, plus nominations for a BAFTA Award and four Primetime Emmy Awards.
Marlee is also a director, executive producer, the author of four books, and the mother of four. She also appeared in the 2022 Academy Award-winning film, Coda.
She spoke with us recently about making your voice heard, not letting fear stand in your way, and the things she wished she knew sooner. Here are highlights of the conversation, slightly edited for brevity.
Q: The Conferences for Women always encourage women to make their voices heard. What is remarkable about you is how you show there are so many powerful ways to do that, boldly, gracefully — and with so much positive energy. What are some of the ways you think women are effectively speaking up for themselves today, and some of the ways you think they can do better?
I have the advantage of the media. I can use the spotlight to talk about accessibility, inclusion, and diversity; I have to simply make noise on behalf of the deaf and disabled community that doesn’t have that.
But if you’re talking about people who don’t have the opportunity to be in the spotlight, I would say: Do what I do but do it your way on whatever level. Technology allows us to spread our message everywhere.
So, make things happen. You have nothing to lose. It’s all about you and your community and how you can live in the most powerful way.
Q: Some women are hesitant to express themselves because they are concerned about what others will think — or it might cause a backlash. How have you managed not to have those concerns hold you back?
I am not shy. I know what I need. I know what I don’t need. And I know I am a woman who happens to be deaf, happens to work in Hollywood, and has the same hopes, dreams, and desires as anyone. No one can stop me from achieving what I want. I have to work. I have to network. I have to take risks.
The male-dominated world is slowly changing and I would think that any woman who wants to reach parity with men — or go above — why not start on her own? Build a collective. Build a business. Big or small.
You have to be aggressive. You have to! Show them that you are a person who wants things just like anyone else. Man or woman. Easy to say, hard to do, but not impossible.
Q: What do you know today that you didn’t know when you began that would be helpful and hopeful for young women to understand?
The number one factor is finding a mentor. Everyone needs one. Fortunately, I was able to have one.
I wish I had gone to college. I wish I had the benefit of a college experience. I am watching my kids go to college as we speak. I am there rooting for them every step of the way.
Community is key. Building trust and taking risks — it’s so crucial.
I started early. I grew up very fast. But the bottom line is I wish I had more schooling to learn about other fields and careers besides acting and producing.
In all honesty, I have nothing else to fall back on. I don’t know what else I’d do. It’s terrifying. Maybe someone from this conference can help me. Maybe they can help me overcome that fear.
Marlee Matlin, Academy Award-winning Actress and Advocate for Disability Rights, spoke at the 2022 Pennsylvania Conference for Women.