Marlee Matlin and Katie Leclerc Break the Sound Barriers
Advocacy ABC Family’s ”Switched at Birth” stars explain the impact their characters have had on the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Mediaplanet: “Switched at Birth” is the first TV show with more than one actor who is deaf or hard of hearing. What type of impact do you feel it has on the deaf and hard of hearing community?
Katie Leclerc: Our show comes into a viewer's living room every week and really says, "We are all the same with the same struggles." We really get to prove that the old saying is true — the only thing a deaf person can’t do is hear. I love that we show how diverse the deaf community is and how uniquely individual hearing loss is. It's great to show deaf kids and teens that they can be anything they want to be.
Marlee Matlin: This show allows deaf actors to perform American sign language in a way that’s never really been done on such a large scale. Actors sign and subtitles provide the dialogue. I liken it to an actor who happens to speak French but is asked to speak in English or someone is asked to interpret for them. Suddenly with subtitles, they’re able to speak and act in their language. I’m not sure what the problem was with subtitles, but today they’re accepted everywhere.
MP: The show allows the characters to communicate in American sign language. When did you first learn sign language? Did you find it difficult to pick up?
KL: I learned ASL in high school and kept up with it by being in the deaf community and hanging out with my sister, who is an ASL teacher in Utah. For me, ASL just clicked. I'm a visual and hands on learner it was the best of both worlds.
"Because I was so accustomed to using my eyes to make sense of everything in my world, sign language was easy for me to learn. It’s a beautiful, evocative and expressive language and I think everyone should learn it, whether hearing or deaf."
MM: I first learned to sign when I was five years old. I remember the first class I attended with my mother. Suddenly I didn’t have to struggle to only read lips and speak. My hands were my partners in communication and it was like someone turned on the light in a dark room. Because I was so accustomed to using my eyes to make sense of everything in my world, sign language was easy for me to learn. It’s a beautiful, evocative and expressive language and I think everyone should learn it, whether hearing or deaf.
MP: What is the greatest every-day challenge as a deaf or hard of hearing person that many people may take for granted?
KL: My hearing loss is unique because it is intermittent. Meniere’s has fluctuating hearing loss. I'll be brushing my teeth and then suddenly it's like the air is sucked out of the room and I can only feel the vibration of the toothbrush. It’s a challenge for me because I never know when it's going to happen. Sometimes I have to hang up the phone in the middle of a conversation and call them back just to avoid asking what they were saying 400 times. I’m lucky because I live and work with incredibly patient people who get it.
MM: The greatest challenges are the barriers that some people we encounter have in their minds — particularly as it relates to what they believe we can or cannot do. Attitudes are a far greater handicap than the perceived handicap we have as people who are deaf.
MP: You have been truly an inspiration to the deaf/hard of hearing community. How do maintain your positive outlook on life?
KL: I really feel so lucky. I get to have my dream job on a show that really has the power to impact the world and I get to do it with an incredible cast. I went through some really hard things to get to where I am now and I remind myself that I've already been sad, and life is so much easier when you can choose to be happy. Wake up in the morning and try to notice the beautiful sunrise, or be excited for wet dog kisses, or as cheesy as it sounds smell a flower. Life is beautiful, it's up to us to appreciate it and elevate our own lives.
MM: My positive outlook comes from my parents, who always encouraged me to look at the good things in life and to approach challenges with a smile. If there’s a barrier, just walk around it. No one can ever tell me what I can and cannot do — that’s what they taught me. I also have a positive outlook because my mentor Henry Winkler told me once when I was young that I could dream whatever I wanted to dream. He was a big influence on me and taught me to always stay positive.