Interview With Deaf Actress Marlee Matlin

Mention Marlee Matlin to anyone, deaf or hearing, and they most likely will immediately say they know who she is. That is a strong indicator of how successful her career as an actress, writer, and producer has been. As busy as she is, Matlin took the time to sit down for an interview.

Actress Marlee Matlin
FilmMagic / Getty Images

As a Deaf Parent of Hearing Children, What Are Some of Your Greatest Challenges?

Being a parent who is deaf does not present any more challenges than if I can hear only because I don't let it. That's been my mantra my whole life—that the real "handicap" of deafness does not lie in the ear, it lies in the mind. Instead, my challenges are making sure that they are safe, well taken care of, and most of all, loved. Obviously, there are challenges for me because I have four children, but I am fortunate in that I have a great husband and extended family and we all support each other. This is a household that speaks and signs so there are NO barriers.


Did Your Children Learn to Sign Early? Did It Make Parenting Easier or Harder?

My oldest daughter, Sarah, "spoke" her first sign when she was 6 months old—it was the sign for "telephone." Just like all children, each one learned to "speak" in sign at different stages, depending when they were ready to learn, but in each case, it was before they were able to speak. I later found out that it is true that a child will communicate with you in sign, if taught, before they are able to speak. It's the way that children develop. I think signing is a great tool to communicate with your children, hearing or deaf, and it certainly makes it easier if you know your child is hungry or wants more because they're telling you in sign instead of just screaming or crying because they don't have the words to speak and tell you.


How Do You and Your Husband Communicate With Your Children? Speaking or Sign?

We use both sign and speech. I've been speaking since I was 2 and signing since I was 5. Though they speak more than they sign because mom speaks a great deal at home, they are comfortable with learning new signs when I teach them. My husband is a fluent signer and uses both.


Have Your Children Had Social/Emotional Issues Related to Having a Deaf Parent?

None that I am aware of. But if they did, I would sit down with them and talk about it. I would encourage them to always feel free to tell me what's going on in their lives and if there was a problem they were encountering, we could work it out together. It's all about communicating.


What Challenges Do You Face When Communicating With Your Children’s Teacher?

I communicate with them via computer, email, and video. In person, I speak. There are times when we have large meetings at school, and I bring in a sign language interpreter because I want to understand 100% of what's going on, but in general, there are no real challenges in communicating with teachers, friends’ parents. Technology and attitudes have evolved to the point where there are virtually no barriers.


What Are the Challenges of Raising Children in the Limelight?

We have made sure that they were raised out of the limelight and purposely chose to live in a city outside of Hollywood. My husband and I have chosen very carefully how much our kids are exposed to it all though we don't keep them completely sheltered. They are fully aware of what I do for a living and that I often have to walk the red carpet and get photographed. But I never take them with me on that carpet. We just don't think it's a place for children.


Would You Say Your Kids Feel Part of the Deaf World, Hearing World or Both?

I've raised them to see the world as one world that has all kinds of people in it, Deaf and hearing. There is still inequality and discrimination against deaf and hard of hearing people but I think the first step towards equality and respect is to recognize they are part of the larger world rather than look at it as "us versus them."


How Do/Did You Help Your Child Understand Your Personal Limitations?

Who said I have limitations? I can do ANYTHING except hear. Yes, I can't be a singer, or a telephone operator, or piano tuner but there's a whole heck [of a lot] in life I can do. Why dwell on my perceived "disability" or "limitations" when I can show them that life is full of possibilities for EVERYONE.


Some Kids of Deaf Parents May Have Less Self-Confidence and Lower Self-Esteem?

I have never experienced this with my children. I think that if this was the situation, it would be up to the parent to encourage children to have a strong sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. A child only learns what you give them so if they need something in any way, it's up to the parent to help them.


Why Did You Decide to Publish Your Autobiography?

At some point in everyone's life, we all have to deal with the truth. For me, it was doing a TV series called Dancing with the Stars where I found people were eager to know who I was other than just Marlee Matlin the Oscar-winning actress who was in The L Word, The West WingSeinfeld, or Children of a Lesser God. So much of my life has been about more than being Deaf and I wanted people to know that. Also, having had four children, I had a chance to reflect on my own childhood and the barriers I faced and wanted to come clean and tell my truth and share that even though no one is perfect, we can overcome barriers of any kind if we just follow our hearts. I'm here today as a mother, actress, activist, and author to prove it.

By Jamie Berke
 Jamie Berke is a deafness and hard of hearing expert.