Marlee Matlin has an excellent translator in Jack Jason.
Standing by her side for 32 years, it is Jason who makes sure the world can hear Matlin’s voice.
But when speaking with Matlin at Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Hotel on Monday morning, it was as if she didn’t need a translator to be understood. With her expressive face, pointed hand movements and unbridled passion, it’s easy to understand what she has to say. Jason’s presence, though, crystallizes her message.
And the message is important: making sure that every person with a disability has the same opportunities as anyone else.
“Discrimination has to stop. Stereotyping has to stop.
Judging and exclusion has to stop,” Matlin said.
Today, Matlin has a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her work in 1987’s Children of a Lesser God, and four Emmy nominations for standout performances in hit TV shows.
But, because of her disability, her road to Hollywood was not an obvious one.
“My entire career – a career many said was not possible for a woman who is deaf – was due to the vision I received from my parents, my Jewish parents,” Matlin said yesterday upon receiving the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion.
The award “recognizes an individual who has made an extraordinary contribution to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish world and the greater public,” the Ruderman Family Foundation states on its website.
For the past three years, the award was given to academics, activists and senators, but this time, the foundation decided to honor a person who is much more in the public eye.
For the foundation’s president, Jay Ruderman, Matlin was an obvious choice to be the face of such an important cause.
“We came to the realization that a lot of people are influenced by the media, and by entertainment and what they see on the big and little screens. Marlee has been an activist on the forefront of people with disabilities, so we thought she was a natural choice. She is not just an actress, she speaks out. She’s a symbol for other people who want to get into this field,” Ruderman said, adding that this is the first time the award ceremony took place in Israel.
In a surprise statement read to the audience by the emcee, Channel 2’s Dana Weiss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I join the Ruderman Family Foundation in commending you for your dedication to helping those with disabilities by pursing your career in performing arts. Your many years of success are an inspiration to all of us.”
Matlin, in her acceptance speech, told the story of a young and ambitious child who refused to give up. The support of her parents and her good friend and mentor Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, inspired her to carry on despite the many obstacles that stood in her way: drug addition, reviews critical of her Oscar win, and those who told her there is no room for someone like her in front of Hollywood’s bright lights.
Words that inspired Zionists around the world also helped Matlin to carry on. Hung on Winkler’s office wall was the famous quote from Theodor Herzl: “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
It is fitting, then, that Matlin is moved by her first trip to Israel.
“I’m very excited to be here,” Matlin told The Jerusalem Post
She has a jam-packed schedule meeting members of the media and disability rights activists.
When asked the question all celebrities face when they come here: “Are you worried about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists?” Matlin says she refuses to let politics bog down such an important visit.
“I’m here to talk about issues related to disabilities, whether we’re talking about Israelis or Palestinians; I’m looking at disabilities across the entire human spectrum. I’m here to support the rights of people with disabilities all over the world,” she said. “This goes beyond politics.”
The award ceremony was a moving tribute to people with disabilities and showcased why society can no longer afford to ignore the 20% who are disabled in some way.
In Matlin’s case, a key to her success is her fierce independence in the face of adversity.
“I don’t make a big deal [of my disability], I don’t deny it or try to sugarcoat it, but at the same time, I’m not going to say, ‘Hey, I’m deaf – hello!’ I just want to make sure the other person is comfortable too,” she said, stressing that when it comes to inclusion, the most important element is mutual respect.
During Monday night’s award ceremony, as the The Voice contestant Nitzan Shayer, who is wheelchair-bound, delivered a moving performance of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” – an ode to coping with tragedy alone – interpreters stood on either side of the stage to sign the lyrics, ensuring that every participant understood the song.
In some ways, that performance encapsulates Matlin’s message, which says the road to success may be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be if there are people who are there to help along the way.