When Marlee Matlin became the first deaf actor to win an academy award, for Children of a Lesser God in 1987, it was still rare for audiences to see American Sign Language (ASL) onscreen.
Now two decades into her career, Marlee, 48, is still making history. Last March, Switched at Birth, the hit ABC Family TV show on which she plays guidance counselor Melody Bledsoe, aired an episode with dialogue entirely in ASL. The series, which features several hearing-impaired actors playing deaf characters, is helping to change the public’s—and Hollywood’s—perception, Marlee says.
Marlee, who lost her hearing as a toddler, has lobbied before Congress to require all TV sets to provide closed-captioning. During a busy season shooting Switched at Birth and a guest appearance on Glee, the mother of four (ages 10 to 18) talked with us about her career, her advocacy and how she stays healthy through it all.
What’s it like being part of the first TV show featuring more than one permanent cast member who is hearing impaired?
Switched at Birth is an amazing show that accurately illustrates the culture of deaf people, rather than portraying them as victims. It’s also the first television show I’ve been on where I can be myself. I don’t have to depend on someone else interpreting for me or speaking my words.
Tell us about your smart phone app, Marlee Signs.
It’s a free app that offers a simple, visual way for people to learn ASL at their own pace. It starts with the alphabet, and then goes on to common expressions. A lot of parents are teaching babies sign language, too, and this offers a basic guide to ASL presented in a way that hasn’t been done before.
How has technology changed the way you communicate?
I love my smart phone and I live and breathe FaceTime, where I can see and talk to people, whether I’m calling my kids or someone at their school. I think social media is amazing and has helped break down barriers to traditional communication.
What’s your latest cause for the hearing impaired?
While closed-captioning is mandatory for television, it’s not required for networks that air program on the Internet. Legislators need to know that captions are necessary for those who are hearing impaired to follow the latest news, entertainment and information. 36 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, and closed-captioning can also help older adults with hearing problems as well as children learning how to read. I would also like to see a mandate for text-to-911 capability, which would not only help the deaf community, but also those who find themselves in a situation—such as with an active shooter—where making a 911 voice call isn’t possible.
What prompted you to undergo surgery for a cataract [the clouding of the natural lens inside the eye]?
I was having problems with my eyesight, depth perception and night driving. With my hearing loss, I rely on my eyesight to an even greater extent. A vision test showed that I had a cataract in my left eye. Because of the density and advanced nature of the cataract, I had relatively new procedure: LENSAR laser surgery. I noticed an improvement immediately and I’m so happy to have my life back.
You’re a mom of teens both on- and off-screen. Any advice for parents navigating the teen years?
All kids are different and each has their own needs. I try to be there for each of my children—to listen, to understand, to get to know their friends and to let my children know I’m there for them.