Marlee Matlin: Combine Courage with Dreams

March 25th, 2015

March 25, 2015 • Lenore Sobota lsobota@pantagraph.com

NORMAL — Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin has a formula that she believes “should be taught in every school and every college throughout the land”: Courage plus dreams equal success.

It is a formula that led her from playing Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” as an 8-year-old at the International Center for Deafness and the Arts to an Oscar-winning role in “Children of a Lesser God.”

After her Oscar win, one would think many doors had opened to her.

But Matlin told a crowd of several hundred Tuesday at the Illinois State University’s Bone Student Center that critic Rex Reed described her win as just “a pity vote,” and he — and others — said her career would go nowhere.

“For the first time in my life, I felt handicapped,” Matlin said, using sign language and the voice of her longtime interpreter, Jack Jason.

She turned to fellow actor Henry Winkler, whom she had met eight years earlier when she was 12 and who had encouraged her to follow her dream.

Matlin said Winkler reminded her of what he told her when they first met: “You can be whatever you want to be. Just believe it in here and your dreams will come true.”

Hollywood has plenty of barriers — whether you’re a woman, deaf, black, Hispanic, gay or physically challenged, Matlin said. “I just walked around them.”

Christine Borders, as assistant professor of special education, said Matlin was selected as the speaker for University Housing Services’ Disability Awareness Cultural Dinner because of her advocacy work.

Walking around barriers is something Matlin has been doing most of her life.

“The idea that I could do anything I set my mind to despite what people call a handicap is something that my mother encouraged in me,” Matlin said.

She attended a regular school with either sign language interpreters or teachers who could sign.

“Now it’s called mainstreaming. Then, they just called it common sense,” she said.

Matlin has gone on to appear in more movies and TV programs, ranging from “Seinfeld,” “The West Wing” and “Dancing With The Stars” to the current ABC Family drama, “Switched at Birth.” All of that has happened, she noted, “28 years since Hollywood critics pronounced my career DOA — deaf on arrival.”

Fielding questions from the sold-out crowd, Matlin advised a student majoring in deaf education to “hang out with deaf people. Get to know the deaf culture.”

She said although some things are improving, “I have to be honest — brutally honest — there are still people who are ignorant when it comes to people like us, when it comes to diversity.”