Overcoming obstacles | Marlee Matlin cites Judaism, family and mentors as instrumental to her success at a talk in Olin Hall Monday. (Tina He / Sun Staff Photographer)

February 9, 2016

Oscar Winning Actress Marlee Matlin Shares Story

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“The real handicap of deafness does not lie in the ear,”  Marlee Matlin, renowned deaf actress, announced to a lecture hall packed with students Monday night. “It lies in the mind.”

Matlin, a renowned advocate for the deaf community, spoke with humor and conviction about the struggles she has overcome as a deaf performer. She also made sure to thank the people who have supported her in her life and career.

Although she was diagnosed as deaf at the age of 18 months, Matlin said her parents sent her to a regular rather than a deaf school, and her family supported her through her childhood.

“When kids made fun of me for how I spoke, my brother told them I had an accent because my parents were dangerous foreign spies,” Matlin said through an interpreter.

Matlin also emphasized the important role her Jewish upbringing played in her life, saying it “has helped me to achieve my dreams when others could not.”

“I was born into a family that never took ‘no’ for an answer and was all about a lot of attention and a whole lot of a word we call ‘chutzpah,’” Matlin said.

Matlin added that the day of her bat mitzvah was one of her most treasured memories.

“[I studied] with a rabbi who signed and who spoke, and every day, I worked to phonetically pronounce the Hebrew that would be part of my haftarah,” she said.

Matlin also discussed her friendship with mentor Henry Winkler — best known for his role as Fonzie on Happy Days — who also spoke at a Cornell Hillel speaker series in September 2014.

According to Matlin, Winkler supported her following her Oscar victory for Children of a Lesser God, even when a film critic asserted that she had only been given the award out of pity.

“I would almost have given up there and then, if it had not been for Henry Winkler,” Matlin said. “Henry reinforced the notion that the only thing a deaf person can’t do is hear.”

Since Children of a Lesser God, Matlin has also appeared in The West Wing, The L Word, Switched at Birth, and the 2015 Broadway performance of Spring Awakening. She encouraged writers and producers to create acting roles that realistically depict deaf characters, such as her character in The L Word.

“It takes one person who gets it, who does their homework,” Matlin said. “You write a role, and it [happens to be] played by a character who happens to be deaf.”

Matlin also emphasized the importance of being inclusive and non-discriminatory — a duty “that each one of us has for each other as human beings,” she said.

“Because someone listened, because I was included, silence was and will be the last thing anyone will hear from me,” Matlin said.