On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Academy Award winner, inclusion champion and activist Marlee Matlin voiced her perspectives and experiences about inclusion, sharing her story of overcoming obstacles and her thoughts on what more can be done

Marlee Matlin is perhaps best known for her role in the film Children of a Lesser God, for which she won the Academy Award – to this day, she remains the youngest-ever woman to win Best Actress Oscar. She is also a candid diversity and inclusion champion and activist for people with disabilities. She broke barriers when she starred on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, has penned three novels for children and written a New York Times Best-Selling autobiography ‘I’ll Scream Later.’ She has aptly stated “The only thing I can’t do is hear.”

In honour of UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Matlin joined RBC in an enterprise-wide event to share her story through a conversation with Bernice Dunsby, Senior Vice President of Enterprise Operations T&O and national co-executive champion of REACH Canada (RBC’s Employee Resource Group dedicated to advancing inclusion for people with disabilities). In a very special discussion, Matlin shared her thoughts on the obstacles people with disabilities face, the ways she has overcome them and how employers and allies can create a more inclusive world in which all people can reach their full potential.

The importance of representation

Marlee Matlin has been a persistent, vocal and courageous person her whole life. She was determined to be an actress and claim a production’s starring role from an early age. Through her personal drive, she has managed to overcome the barriers presented by her disability. But even Marlee Matlin needed to see someone like her on the screen to recognize the possibilities available to her.

In her discussion, Matlin emphasizes the importance of representation, particularly within her profession – after all, it wasn’t until she saw Linda Bove, a deaf actress speaking in sign language on a Happy Days episode, that she recognized her dream could in fact come to life.

Unfortunately, there is still a lack of representation in the film industry. Matlin shares her journey through the production of her latest project CODA – a film that follows a hearing teenager who is a child of deaf adults – and how she was ready to quit the production when the financial backers told her they were looking to cast big names instead of deaf actors.

“For the longest time, hearing actors have been playing deaf people or actors who are not disabled have been playing disabled people,” says Matlin. “And it’s just not an excuse you can get away with any longer. When I heard they wanted a big, “box office” name to play my husband, I said ‘that’s not authentic – and if that’s the route you’re going to go, I’m going to respectfully decline the role.'”

She goes on to explain that there are plenty of wonderful and authentic deaf and disabled actors who need to play these parts. “We can’t perpetuate this stereotype that disability or deafness is a costume that an actor can put on and take off at the end of the day. It takes patience on the part of those people who are not deaf or disabled – and it takes commitment.”

Representation extends beyond the screen, as disabled people must be able to see themselves in any kind of role or profession that interests them. “I think it’s crucial for people like myself, deaf adults, to visit deaf schools or schools that have deaf students, to demonstrate who we are and how successful we are – whether we are actors, teachers, nurses, doctors or lawyers – or whatever may represent the possibilities of life for them.” She emphasizes the importance of showing that nothing is impossible.

Collaboration, communicating and thinking differently

Inclusion in the workplace – any workplace – begins with communication. And while Matlin feels there has been a lot of dialogue around Diversity and Inclusion, she also feels that deaf and disabled people have been left out of the conversation. Further, she believes that people with disabilities are often placed in solitary jobs that don’t involve interaction.

“I think that’s a problem,” she says. “We need to enable people with disabilities who want to work with people to do so. We need to educate the general public that we can do anything we set our minds to,” she says, adding “we need to train individuals who are not deaf or disabled to understand our needs and think differently about what we can do.”

Her message to any leader or organization looking to create an inclusive workplace is to continue acknowledging and recognizing deaf and disabled people and reach out to find and recruit those people for their workforce. “You need to make yourself known that you’re open to diversity and inclusion and that are willing to help train people who are deaf or disabled who might not think they have an opportunity with you.”

Marlee Matlin

Allies matter

Henry Winkler – “the Fonz” from Happy Days – has a special place in Marlee Matlin’s life. He is a long-time mentor and ally and someone she can call upon for advice and feedback. Matlin talks about the importance of having an ally, and what it means to people with disabilities.

“It’s important to have someone who doesn’t necessarily hold your hand but has your back. Because if they hold your hand, you don’t really learn to stand on your own – rather than being spoon-fed, we need to be able to stand on our feet and think.”

Allies and mentors who understand what you want to do and where you want to go can provide feedback and support, and instill confidence when times get difficult.

Employee Resource Groups like RBC REACH offer forums for people with disabilities and allies to come together to learn from each other and support each other – an essential step to advancing inclusion in work and in life.

“We have authentic stories”

People with disabilities are often portrayed as inspirational characters, which can perpetuate stereotypes and create barriers between people. Matlin hopes that films like CODA will help audiences understand that people who are deaf or disabled can be something else other than totally inspirational. “We have the same dreams and we work in the same places you all work in. CODA is a film about real struggles, it’s about real life. And I hope that studios will have greater trust in portraying authentic stories that are not just inspirational,” she explains.

In turn, she feels that audiences are more receptive to the idea of diversity and authenticity in film – a trend that she hopes will carry through to everyday life.

As someone who has stated “I can do anything except hear,” Matlin is championing inclusion, representation and opportunity for people who are deaf and disabled as she demonstrates the vast possibilities of life. Her hope is that others can recognize the potential that exists in people with disabilities and ultimately look beyond someone’s disability to see they are above all else, a person first.

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