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Deaf People: Marlee Matlin

Ophelia Boxley

Academy Award Winner: Marlee Matlin

"I've gotten hundreds of letters each week about how much they appreciate that I've opened the eyes of hearing people that deaf people can do anything except hear."  -Marlee Matlin

It is often, when a deaf person is portrayed in television or film, that a hearing actor plays the role, except perhaps in the case of Marlee Matlin. Marlee is the youngest actress and the only deaf performer to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Her countless performances have also acquired her a Golden Globe and four Emmy nominations.

Marlee Beth Matlin was born on August 24, 1965. Her parents Libby and Donald lived in Morton Grove, Illinois and worked as a jeweler and automobile dealer. With two older brothers, Marlee was the only daughter. At the tender age of 18 months she was struck by a bout of roseola infantum and it was initially thought that this had caused her loss of hearing. In later years Marlee was told it was more likely that she has a genetically malformed cochlea, which meant that her hearing had gradually reduced after her birth. (Matlin)

Rather than send her to a special school, Marlee's parents decided to educate her themselves. At the age of 5 she began using sign language but her parents found it hard to learn and struggled "My parents learned some sign language to communicate with me, but they raised me with a great deal of love and respect, and it wasn't easy for them because of who I was - being a girl, being very stubborn, being very strong willed, being very outspoken and very independent." (Matlin)

At the age of 7 Marlee, made her stage debut as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz through an acting program with the International Center on Deafness and the Arts. It was during a later ICODA production of ‘Children of a Lesser God' that she was discovered by Henry Winkler which ultimately led to her film debut that earned her an Academy Award in 1986. Her role of Sarah, a young deaf woman, who becomes involved with her speech therapist ( played by William Hurt). She rejects communication through lip reading and speech and chooses only to use sign language. One critic wrote " She holds her own against the powerhouse she's acting with, carrying scenes with a passion." (Ebert) The following year, Marlee attended the Oscars to present the Academy Award for Best Actor. After signing the introduction in American Sign Language, she spoke aloud the names of the nominees and announced Michael Douglas the winner.

As a spokesperson for the National Captioning Institute, Marlee helped to get a law passed that required all television sets 13 inches or larger to be manufactured with built in chips to provide closed captioning on the screens. She also serves on the boards of a great many charitable organizations that include the Aids Foundation, Easter Seals, VSA arts and the Red Cross. In 1987 Marlee received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree from Gallaudet University, where she now sits on the board of trustees.

Marlee Matlin is an exceptional person she has achieved so much professionally as an author, producer and actor including a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and personally as a mother to her four beautiful children.


Works Cited:

Matlin, Marlee. I'll Scream Later, New York. Simon and Schuster, c2009.

Ability Magazine: Marlee Matlin Story ( April 2011

Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun Times. Review: Children of a Lesser God. ( October 1986

Matlin, Marlee. Official website (


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