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June 21, 2003

Deaf actress credits director for her success

From: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WI - Jun 21, 2003

Last Updated: June 21, 2003

Marlee Matlin became an overnight star when she received an Academy Award for best actress for her debut performance in 1986's "Children of a Lesser God." She was 21 years old and the only deaf person to have received an Oscar. Since then, she has appeared in a dozen more films, has guest-starred in a number of TV shows, including "The West Wing" and "The Practice," and has formed her own production company. In 2002, she wrote her first book, a novel for children titled "Deaf Child Crossing." She has a contract with Simon & Schuster for three sequels. Matlin lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Kevin Grandalski, a police officer, and their three young children. Matlin spoke with Journal Sentinel reporter Kathleen Arenz through an interpreter when she visited Milwaukee to speak at a benefit luncheon for Independence First, a non-profit that offers direct services to increase independence for people with disabilities of all kinds.

Q. Can you comment on the Americans With Disabilities Act and what effect it's had, if any, on the hearing-impaired?

A. I remember when it was passed. It made my day; it made my life. For all hearing-impaired and all disabled people, it was something we'd all dreamed of. When it was passed, we all danced. But there's still a lot of work to be done. The message is out there, but many people are unaware of the rights of the disabled.

Q. Breaking into acting is tough enough for anyone. A hearing impairment would seem to be an insurmountable obstacle. How did you succeed?

A. I was lucky. Randa Haines, the director of "Children of a Lesser God," saw things differently. She believed I could do what she wanted me to do. She trusted me as an actress, deaf or not. She didn't ignore my abilities; she helped me to grow. I give her credit for bringing me where I am today.

Q. Acting is an art form in which rhythm, cadence, inflections and sounds are important. What particular challenges do you face in competing in this arena?

A. A lot of people think an actor playing a deaf character is easy. It's not. It's easier when you are deaf, but no role I've played has been easy. There are so many personalities and traits in each character. If I'm signing, I can express emotions in how fast or slow I sign. But in speaking roles, I'll always have concerns about how to use my voice with inflections. I do want to prove I'm capable of putting feeling into words. I'll always ask the director if something sounds right. But face it, I'll never be a voice-over actor.

Q. If you could play any role, what would it be?

A. I'd do anything that's created for me if I feel comfortable doing it. If not, I'll pass. Some people think I should do comedy.

Q. What advice do you have for parents deciding how to educate a deaf child?

A. First, educate yourselves about the deaf culture. Learn the language (sign language) that's provided for deaf children. Send them to a school that provides sign language, speech classes and mainstream classes. The hearing-impaired world is a world of the minority. Lots of deaf people choose not to go out into the bigger world. Listen to your children. Provide the best school and care and lots of love, the same as you'd give your hearing children.

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