Marlee Matlin takes center stage for What Matters to U?

Marlee Matlin and moderator Grace Altidor sign “I love you” to students following Matlins speech organized by What Matters to U on March 3 in the Shalala Student Center. Photo credit: Alexandra Carnochan

Marlee Matlin, Academy Award winning actress and prolific activist, spoke to students about expanding the rhetoric of inclusion from the stage in the Shalala Center Grand Ballroom this Friday, in the latest talk of the “What Matters to U?” series, which invites prominent speakers to share their unique, valuable perspectives.

Matlin, who made her acting debut in Children of a Lesser God, for which she won best actress at the Academy Awards, is not only the youngest to ever have claimed this prize, but also the first deaf performer to win an Academy Award. She also starred in CODA, a more recent venture, which received critical acclaim for its portrayal of deaf culture, and won all three Academy Awards it was nominated for, including that for Best Picture.

During her conversation with students, Matlin focused on the importance of accessibility in the activism sphere, and how it is crucial that it remain central to conversations about inclusive spaces.

“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion cannot occur for millions of us, even as the rest of the country moves into the new normal,” Matlin said. “That’s why I’ve been on a campaign to add an “A” to “D,” “E,” and “I” — diversity, equity, inclusion and “A” for access.”

When it comes to surmounting barriers to access in her own life and career, Matlin credited success partly to her own perseverance, and partly to the backing of her support system, particularly her family. When a critic told her that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress out of pity, for example, she said she leaned on the support of her mentor, her parents and her friends.

“If you will it, it is not a dream,” Matlin said, quoting her mentor, Henry Winkler. “I was eventually able to come to the realization that no matter what I set my sights on all my dreams could come true if it just willed it. The same is true for all of you.”

At the closing of her speech, Matlin left the audience with the parable of the King and the Scratched Diamond, in which an unassuming craftsman carves a rose at the end of a deep scratch in an otherwise perfect diamond, using this apparent defect to create something beautiful. Matlin told students that they too could benefit from disavowing the notion of unblemished “perfection.”

“So, each one of us has the power to take broken diamonds and turn them into roses if we recognize that perfection comes in many forms,” Matlin said. “If you can pull forth the little craftsman that lives within you, you can definitely soar.”

Students found Matlin’s message of greater awareness and accessibility, especially in the realm of entertainment, particularly salient.

“I think it’s important, especially now, for younger audiences to learn empathy and to learn to value stories other than their own or the ones we’re so often used to seeing told,” said Rocio Martinez, a junior English major. “I feel like awareness is the first step in achieving this. Movies like CODA show the reality of a lot of people, and not only is it important both for deaf young adults and young adults of deaf families to see their stories represented on screen, but to also see them represented with care and respect.”

Thanks to CODA, a story about the coming-of-age of a young woman, who is the only hearing member of her family, Matlin said, being the first deaf actress to win an Academy Award was no longer a “lonely position,” for her.

“Despite the fact that there are still hurdles to overcome, and especially when it comes to full inclusion, diversity, access and equity, the landscape of Film and Television has not been the same ever since,” Matlin said. “The critical raves, the numerous nominations and awards this past year have proven that films, when cast authentically, with inclusive and diverse storytelling, can be commercially and critically successful.”

Bradley Harmer, a freshman computer science major, like Martinez, attested to the power of stories.

“I think deaf awareness is especially important because it can feel really alienating for young kids especially,” Harmer said. “With a push for seeing more deaf characters on screen, I think you also find it leads to a higher level of accessibility in real life, as it becomes something less stigmatized. Media like movies and TV is a great way to push through barriers because it is a medium that reaches so many different people and can affect them all greatly.”