As an American actress, author, and activist, as well as an Academy Award winner, Marlee Matlin did not let her hearing impairment hold her back from achieving new heights within the hearing impaired community.

Early Life

Marlee Matlin was born in Morton Grove, Illinois and at the age of 18 months old, she lost all hearing in her right ear and 80% in her left ear. This hearing loss was caused by a genetically malformed cochlea. She is one of three siblings and is the only one in her family who was diagnosed with hearing loss. As she grew older she attended a synagogue for the deaf and eventually studied Hebrew phonetically. Even with her disability, she took the stage in children’s theatre through the Center of Deafness in Chicago, playing Dorthy, and continued to take many other theatre roles after her first performance. After she grew out of children’s theatre, she attended college to pursue a degree in Criminal Justice. Although she was eventually discovered through her breakout talent and was signed to her first movie, Children of a Lesser God.

“Matlin has an unusual talent for concentrating her emotions — and an audience’s — in her signing. But there is something more here, an ironic intelligence, a fierce but not distancing wit, that the movies, with their famous ability to photograph thought, discover in very few performances.”

Time Magazine

Acting Career

After her first performance in the film Children of a Lesser God, positive reviews of her performance and the movie skyrocketed her career to the top. With her career skyrocketing, she was the youngest actress to receive the Oscar in the Best Actress category, a feat for any actor! As well as to this day the only deaf Academy Award recipient. Matlin continued to appear in movies and eventually led to recurring roles from shows many of us watch today, such as The West Wing, Blues Clues, Seinfield, ER, Law & Order: SVU, and many others.

“The most obvious challenge of the role is to communicate without speaking, but Matlin rises to it in the same way the stars of the silent era did — she acts with her eyes, her gestures.”

Washington Post

Impact on the Hearing Impairment Community

Aside from her outstanding accomplishments on the big screen, she has written various novels discussing living and overcoming hearing impairment. Matlin herself is a strong advocate for the rights of deaf people, where she only accepts acting roles which the producers commit to caption the films. Along with her role as an advocate in the community, she has testified in front of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources to support the National Institute on Deafness and Communications Disorders.