When Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin travels to underserved areas to help children and adults who have hearing loss, she immediately calls attention to herself—not as a celebrity, but as a person with a hearing aid.
“When I first meet a child or young person with a hearing loss, I always make a point of showing them that I’m just like them,” says Matlin, 46, who is legally deaf, but has some residual hearing in one ear.
The actress, who recently appeared on Celebrity Apprentice and has a recurring role on the ABC Family show Switched at Birth, has long been an ambassador for the Starkey Hearing Foundation. Hearing-aid manufacturer and philanthropist Bill Austin started the organization with a mission to improve hearing health on a global scale. The foundation has already given away more than half a million hearing aids and plans to at least double that number this decade.
The foundation’s efforts change lives overnight with a simple electronic device. As an ambassador, Matlin says she has the privilege of witnessing children hear their parents’ voices for the first time. “Each time it happens for me, it’s as if it’s the first time,” says Matlin, who has four hearing children of her own. “Nothing is more beautiful.”
Matlin chose the Starkey Hearing Foundation as her charity when she competed in this season’s Celebrity Apprentice because she wanted to raise awareness that millions of people in the world don’t have access to hearing aids or can’t afford them. Not only did she boost the foundation’s profile but she also brought in $1 million for the charity during a special fundraising episode. She even made it to the final round, losing the title to country singer John Rich.
“She certainly brought attention to us on a national level,” says Austin, who has fit Matlin with hearing aids for years and most recently witnessed her do field work for his foundation in Nairobi, Kenya.
“Marlee will go to work and do anything anyone else will do. She rolls up her sleeves, she’s positive and energetic, and she communicates well with the people we’re trying to help,” he says. “She’s always upbeat, which is what we’re trying to project—that idea of finding your ability and maximizing it.”
Matlin’s hearing loss apparently resulted from an illness when she was about 18 months old. Some specialists recommended her parents send her away to attend a school for the deaf, but they couldn’t bear the thought of their young daughter being away from home. Instead, Matlin grew up attending school near their suburban Chicago home, wearing hearing aids and learning to sign and speak. Her parents emphasized that every one has challenges and that no one is better than anyone else.
“When kids made fun of my hearing aids, my dad would turn the situation into a humorous one, telling me to tell them they were big globs of bubblegum—want some?” says Matlin. “And when kids made fun of my speech, my brothers told my friends that I had an accent because our parents were foreign spies. And when kids stared, my parents just told me to stare right back and offer my hand in friendship. That broke the ice instantly and it’s a lesson I’ve kept with me ever since.”
Nobody’s perfect, a theme from her childhood, is repeated in the three novels she’s written for older children, and is the title of the second one. And it plays out in her nonfiction too. Matlin’s autobiography, I'll Scream Later , tells of her hard-won successes and her unique role as both an actress who is deaf and the youngest woman ever to win the Academy Award for best actress, for her work in Children of a Lesser God.
As for her Oscar, which she won at age 21, she says ignorance was truly bliss. “All the pressure, all the publicity, and all the hoopla was pretty much lost on me because I was completely new to Hollywood and had no idea what to expect,” she says.
But being in the spotlight, not only for her talent but also for her deafness, made life more complicated, as she became an unwitting spokesperson for the deaf community. “Every move I made, every comment I made, was scrutinized and analyzed, and no matter which way I turned, I was criticized for not supporting one side or the other of the communication debate [signing versus speech],” she says.
When Matlin saw her name in headlines next to the word offensive, it was painful, especially because it implied that what her parents taught her about communication was somehow wrong. “It took a long time to get over it,” she says. “Sometimes I still find myself a bit wary of people asking for my opinions for fear they might turn it around and use it for their own gain.”
She says she has never been a proponent of one method over another and believes children with hearing loss should have the opportunity to access both forms of communication, if that’s what they want. “It’s important to me to give children opportunities and that’s what Starkey does,” she says.
Teaching a wider audience about what it means to be deaf is another role Matlin embraces. That’s one reason she loves being on Switched at Birth, a show about two teenage girls who discover they were switched as babies in the hospital. One girl is growing up in a well-off nuclear family while the other girl, who is deaf, is growing up in a working-class neighborhood with a single mother. The show’s characters are forced to consider how different life could have been, even as they must inevitably interact with new family members. Speaking, signing and even subtitles are used in the show. “It’s fantastic,” Matlin says. “It’s such a groundbreaking series.”
Matlin knows about breaking ground, especially as an actress. Her favorite role has always been her first; as Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God. Other favorite characters she’s played are Joey Lucas from The West Wing and Jodi Lerner from The L Word. “These were characters who were deaf but whose story lines didn’t revolve around stereotypes related to being deaf,” she says. She’s also willing to take on roles such as she played on Seinfeld and Family Guy that poke fun at stereotypes.
In 2010, Matlin produced a pilot for a show called My Deaf Family. “The idea grew out of my desire to see a reality show featuring a family with deaf and hearing members,” she says. The show revolves around a family of six in Northern California: a hearing teenage boy, his deaf parents and three younger siblings, including two who are deaf.
Matlin shopped the pilot around to various networks and while it received praise, it didn’t sell. So she relied on her instincts and put it on YouTube, where it quickly received more than 250,000 hits. With these numbers, she says she’ll continue to pitch it. But if it lives on the Net, that’s also fine with her. Either way, it exposes people to what it means to be deaf.
Raising awareness is what it’s all about for Matlin, who now embraces her role as advocate for the hearing-impaired. “My role with Starkey has been as an ambassador, helping spread the message of the importance of hearing health, as well as helping raise awareness that hundreds of thousands of children and adults out there in developing countries who are deaf or hard of hearing are unable to afford hearing aids,” she says. “It’s important to me to help give these children and adults opportunities.”