People and Community University

Academy-Award winner encourages students to ‘break barriers’

Marlee Matlin, who is best known for being the first deaf actor to win an Oscar for her role in “Children of a Lesser God,” brought awareness to accessibility and gave advice to students at the Student Government’s What Matters to U event on Thursday.
Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin was the keynote speaker at Student Government’s What Matters to U event on Thursday. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

Before becoming the first deaf performer to win an Academy Award at the age of 21, Marlee Matlin had only seen one episode of a television show with someone just like her.  

“I used to watch the TV show “Happy Days” as an 8-year-old, and there was an episode that had a deaf woman using American Sign Language,” said Matlin in an interview. “I realized ‘Oh, she’s speaking my language, I want to be on that show.’ And from then on, I set my sights on being an actor.”  

As the guest speaker at Thursday’s What Matters to U event hosted by the University of Miami Student Government, Matlin said she lost her hearing at 18 months old and described how that impacted her upbringing, as well as her navigation of a successful acting career in Hollywood. 

Grace Altidor, a senior majoring in health science, and Kirsten Schwarz Olmedo, an ASL lecturer at the University pursuing a doctorate in speech-language pathology, moderated the discussion with Matlin and her interpreter, Jack Jason, on her successes, challenges, and social justice advocacy.

Marlee Matlin 

Matlin expressed her desire to pursue criminal justice as a young adult—because her brother was in law enforcement—but quickly realized, with the help of a professor, that because she was deaf, it would not be possible. However, Matlin reverted to what actor Henry Winkler, from “Happy Days,” told her at a meet-and-greet in her hometown of Chicago. 

“I remember meeting him at 12 years old and asking him how I could become an actor,” Matlin told the audience. “My mom had said, ‘Please don’t give her any false hope.’ And I remember he knelt down and told me, ‘Marlee, you can do anything you set your mind to.’ ” 

Since then, Matlin, who is also an activist and author, has worked on several popular television shows, including “The West Wing,” “Switched at Birth,” and “Seinfeld,” as well as her Oscar-winning role and the film “CODA.” And she recently guest-starred on the NBC medical drama “New Amsterdam.” But Matlin made it clear that the entertainment industry still has miles to go in terms of accessibility and said that she hopes her work reflects bigger stories outside of physical limitations. 

“When I read a script, it has to be something that excites me, something I feel a connection with,” said Matlin. “I want to be able to portray characters who might even be written as someone who can speak, and because of who I am, portray them as someone who doesn’t speak, yet it’ll make sense anyway.” 

Despite the challenges still presented to non-hearing individuals, both within and outside of the entertainment industry, Matlin admitted that there is much more representation and understanding now of the community than there used to be. She also credited other industry professionals like Aaron Sorkin, Whoopi Goldberg, and Henry Winkler for being some of the people who helped her assimilate into her acting career at a time when there seemed to be very little accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing. 

The biggest piece of advice she gave to students was to find a mentor in whatever career path they choose—someone who can help guide them in a way she was guided from a young age. She also noted the need for more pathways to language for students who do not have hearing capabilities, as well as more reforms to education for anyone who is not normally seen by mainstream society.

“Having the ability to learn and be treated with respect without prejudice or hate will allow you to soar,” Matlin told the young audience. “Don’t let anyone diminish you from learning all that you can and break barriers to expand the wonderful minds you all possess.”