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How to Break Ground for Deaf Actors in Hollywood

Marlee Matlin, star of Freeform’s Switched at Birth, looks back on how the show became a “game changer” for diverse thespians before its final episode.
In Switched at Birth, Marlee Matlin plays educator Melody Bledsoe. (Photo: Freeform)

In Switched at Birth, Marlee Matlin plays educator Melody Bledsoe. (Photo: Freeform)

When deaf characters talk to one another on Switched at Birth, the Peabody award-winning family drama on Freeform, the sound cuts out. Characters sign to each other, subtitles scroll, and the means that these individuals use to interact with the world take precedence over the auditory environment of hearing viewers.

Switched at Birth has been portraying sign language onscreen since the series’ beginning. In the first episode, which aired in 2011, a wealthy family meeting their deaf biological daughter for the first time offers to pay to “fix” her with cochlear implant. Over the course of the show, that family learns to accept her preferred means of communication — and, by the time the finale airs tonight, every member knows how to sign and communicate with her.

For the past five years, and across 103 episodes, Switched at Birth has opened up conversations about difference, inclusion, family, and community. One pivotal character who has sparked some of those discussions has been Melody Bledsoe, an educator and mother of Emmett (Sean Berdy), played by Marlee Matlin. Bledsoe often provides the diverse community of deaf and otherwise sign language-using characters in the show with some historical perspective on the Deaf rights movement—in one episode, when several young students stage a sit-in of a school for the deaf that is threatened with closure, they compare their actions to Bledsoe’s at the famous Deaf President Now protests at Gallaudet University in 1988.

Matlin’s own career took off in the same era as the Gallaudet protests: The actress, who is deaf herself, won an Academy Award for her role in Children of a Lesser God in 1987, played the iconicpollstercharacterJoey Lucas on The West Wing from 2000 and 2006, and has appeared in dozens of other shows and films. And when she’s not acting, Matlin is a major advocate for accessible media. She has teamed up with the Deaf rights organization HEARD and the American Civil Liberties Union to make a public-service announcement on the rights of deaf civilians during police interactions, is pushing Broadway to become more accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing theatergoers, and won an award from the Ruderman Foundation for her career-longefforts to make media more inclusive both onscreen and behind the scenes.

To commemorate the show’s revolutionary depiction of deaf characters, we spoke with Matlin over email about Switched at Birth, accessible media, and the state of disability representation on television.

Let’s start with Switched at Birth. When I first heard the premise, it sounded like a pretty light show — but it’s changed the conversation about disability on TV. What, in your mind, is its legacy?

I knew from the start that there was something unique and groundbreaking about the show. [Creator] Lizzy Weiss invited me to watch the pilot, and when I saw not only one deaf actor, but a number of them all signing, subtitled, and incorporated in a manner that I had only dreamed should happen in TV, I knew she had done her homework. Switched at Birth proved that deaf actors can be part of any TV show and there should never be a worry that somehow it wouldn’t work. Switched at Birth was definitely a game changer for the community of deaf actors in Hollywood, as well as viewers eager for diversity.

Can you tell me a story about about being on set when the show felt different to you?

It felt different the first day I walked on the set and was asked to do my lines without having to worry about having to speak, without having to think about the actor who would be translating my signs into responses that made it clear what I was saying or who was interpreting for me. My hands, my language, did all the talking, and captions took care of the rest. That was the moment I realized that I was finally free to act with the means that I was most comfortable with as an actor who happens to be deaf and who communicates in American Sign Language. Acting finally was available to me just like everyoneelse.

Still, the overall landscape for disabled actors is pretty grim, with few roles written as disabled, and few disabled actors cast even in those roles. Do you feel conditions are getting better or worse for those actors?

The situation appears on the surface to be better for actors with disabilities. Breaking Bad, Speechless, [and] Switched at Birth all featured actors who were deaf or who had disabilities. But the statistics tell a different story. People with disabilities make up 20 percent of the population and yet only 5 percent of roles in film and TV have deaf/disabled roles. And of this 5 percent, only 5 percent are played by actors who actually have a disability. That is unacceptable. Fortunately, with shows like Speechless and Switched at Birth, younger people are getting it, and they’ll be the ones making the decisions in the future.

How should advocates for deaf or disabled actors in Hollywood build on these successes?

[Through] social media, videos, and making noise. Fortunately, there are so many more avenues for getting attention [now] than there were 30 years ago when I won my Academy Award, and they all have to do with social media. And we can make our own work; YouTube, Snap[chat], and streaming media are open to all and accessible to anyone who has a story to tell.

Is your Wizard of Oz story — where you wanted to watch the movie with your daughter, in part because Dorothy was your first acting role, but couldn’t find a captioned version online — a good example?

With one tweet, I got over 300,000 people aware of the lack of access when it came to streaming content played without captions. These 300,000 then acted upon it, made more noise, and helped spread the message that no one should ever be left out simply because they are deaf. The movement is growing and people are no longer willing to accept the status quo of no captions.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been streaming The West Wing, and so am thinking about your characterJoey Lucas. In the first two seasons, Lucas keeps arguing that, when Americans don’t understand something, the answer isn’t to despair, but to educate. Today, we’re in a world in which America isn’t just divided by partisanship — we can’t even agree on basic facts. Can the arts help us cross those lines? Is that something you see yourself doing?

The arts have always helped cross the lines, and informed, educated, and entertained all at the same time. Look at what Deaf West Theater did on Broadway with Spring Awakening and Big River this past decade, what Children of a Lesser God did 30 years ago onscreen and 35 years ago on the stage, and what the National Theater of the Deaf did 50 years ago — they opened the eyes and ears of Americans who had no idea what deaf actors could do.

Now, with the support of the arts being threatened by the current administration, there may not be any new opportunities to expand the effort toward diversity that was so often the case when the government supported the arts. To me, this is unacceptable and it’s time for me to drum up that Joey Lucas attitude that allowed her to bellow, “You idiot! I’m Joey Lucas!” and try and make a lot of noise.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.