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Disability in the world of work - Interview with Actress Marlee Matlin

Actress Marlee Matlin often says that the only thing deaf people can’t do is hear. With access to communication and the right tools, people with disabilities have shown themselves to be exemplary workers.

Article | 21 December 2007

Q. What is your current profession?

A. I’m self-employed. I’m an actor, an entertainer, an author, a producer. I am also a mother and a wife. But, all in all, I’m an actress.

Q. What does your job involve?

A. My work involves a great deal of communication with everyone, in particular, with the people in my production company. This involves communicating with people in the films that I work in – the producers, directors, writers, and the actors. It’s specifically about communication for me. I always make sure that have an interpreter with me who facilitates communication so I don’t have to deal with the issues that come up with not being able to communicate.

Q. You do so many things in the world of communication, yet you have a disability that many people would find daunting in their everyday life.

A. I never let disability stop me from what I do and from what I love doing. I was told at a young age never to let others tell you otherwise – what you are and who you are, what you want and what to dream for. To never accept the word “no” for an answer. “No” is not in my vocabulary.

I had the privilege to control those decisions affecting my career and to be who I am. I’m not going to say that it was easy, but I’ve worked hard to be who I am today. I’m a very stubborn person, but that’s a good thing.

Q. Tell us about your new children’s book.

A. I have a new children’s book. It’s called “Leading Ladies” and it’s the third book of the Megan Merrill series. I’m very proud of this book because when I was 11 I remember thinking – I think might have had a bad day – but I remember thinking when I grow up and become an adult I’m going to write a book telling the world that it’s o.k. to be deaf.

At 11, I knew I had that goal. I knew I wasn’t going to be home forever. I knew I would be making money, earning a living and being productive at whatever job I chose. So, this book is a representation of the stories, loosely based on my childhood. It shows how I entered the acting field. I’m really happy that my efforts came to this. Because you don’t have to be deaf to be a writer. You don’t have to know sign language to be able to share the experiences of a deaf person. The words are for everyone to read and for everyone to share.

Q. What are your views on the internet and, specifically, what it represents for persons with disabilities?

A. There is so much potential for communication through the access that we have today. It’s not perfect, but the internet and modern technology has improved greatly compared to 20 years ago, it’s amazing how much more open it is with instant messaging, with video phones and video relay services. And, we all have access. It’s very one-on-one and now the world has opened so greatly that I can communicate with anyone – hearing or deaf – via the internet. It’s amazing what’s out there.

From a deaf perspective, where communication wasn’t accessible and now is, these words are now part of our world and we can communicate back and forth. And the barriers have been broken for everyone, for all languages, for all abilities.

Q. What helped you achieve success?

A. What helped me achieve success was being able to communicate with everyone. I had great people around me. People who believed in me. People who worked with me. People who helped me out. People who helped create with me. I reached out to whatever I could find that interested me. To be able to trust oneself is a very important part of communicating. To be able to make friends, to be able to achieve…. it’s as simple as that. You need to be able to have the opportunity to do it. You have to be aggressive. If you aren’t then you’ll just stand there and be useless. You become marginalized. You won’t get to where you want to be.

Q. What factor, event or person made the biggest difference in this context?

A. As a result of doing a great deal of charity work I know how important it is for people to have mentors. It’s helped me realize how I became who I am. In the same way that they inspired me and I learned from that experience I understand how important mentors are.

I was very fortunate to have met Henry Winkler when I was 12 years old. You may remember from “Happy Days” – he played the Fonz. He was the one who told me to believe in myself, when others told him not to encourage me. What he told me was absolutely true, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Q. What message do you have for others with a disability?

A. Don’t ever give up. Try to put yourself out there. Explore the world as best as you can. There’s not just one dream out there. I know that children love to dream. Write down your dreams. Put into words what interests you. Take the opportunity to express yourself. And if it doesn’t work for you then move on to the next. And that’s a good place to begin. Find an opportunity, find a computer and see what’s out there for you. But don’t ever give up. There is no difference among individuals in this world. None.

Q. What message do you have for those who do not have a disability?

A. Don’t judge. Lend a hand, if they want a helping hand. Do not patronize. And let them think for themselves, let them feel for themselves, let them do their job. Give people with disabilities a chance. Life is too short to think of them otherwise. No one owns this world. Everyone does. Everyone shares equally in this world. Just try to offer respect, an ear, and a chance.