TEL AVIV – Actress Marlee Matlin lifted her hand beside her face in the shape of an “L” and tapped her fingers together a couple of times.
“That’s it?” a shocked reporter asked. “That’s so short.”
Matlin was giving the Israeli press a lesson in the Hebrew sign for Tel Aviv just days after arriving on her first trip ever to the Jewish state. The irony of the American teaching the Israelis wasn’t lost in translation, so to speak, but the lesson was also an example of just the kind of work the actress was in Israel to do.
Gliding around Sunday night’s venue in the Tel Aviv port where she received the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, Matlin stopped to snap photographs with fans, some of whom were in wheelchairs or held white canes. Sign language was as common among the hundreds of guests in attendance as spoken language.
The $100,000 prize, presented by the Ruderman Family Foundation, recognized her achievements in activism for people with disabilities — a cause she champions with distinction as the world’s only deaf Academy Award winning actor.
Matlin is the perfect advocate. Dripping a charisma not diluted a bit by her faithful sign language interpreter Jack Jason, who has been by her side for years, one walks away from an encounter with her with the feeling that she’s granted you a favor. And in a way, she has – if you had the impression that her deafness put her at any significant disadvantage, she’s given you a valuable learning experience.
‘I just never thought I can’t do things because I’m deaf’
“I just never thought I can’t do things because I’m deaf,” Matlin told The Times of Israel when asked about becoming an actress. “I just knew that I wanted to be in Hollywood. I wanted to be an actor just like everybody, everyone I saw in television or on the movie screen — I wanted to be just like them. But I didn’t let my deafness define me. I never let my deafness tell me that I couldn’t do it, I never let my deafness tell me otherwise.”
“I feel like in our society, entertainment is so powerful, and she’s the leading spokesperson on the issue. So for that reason she was a natural choice,” said the foundation’s president, Jay Ruderman.
“We recently did a white paper, and we found out that 95 percent of the disabled characters that you see on TV are played by able-bodied characters,” Ruderman said. “One of our short term goals is to get more people with disabilities on TV. A long-term goal is to reach a tipping point where there’s no more stigma, and people see others with disabilities as just people.”
‘Ninety-five percent of the disabled characters that you see on TV are played by able-bodied characters’
The event itself was a case in point, demonstrating how such a reality might look. Sipping wine and nibbling tapas on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean’s crashing waves, the heterogeneous crowd chatted and laughed with nary an awkward sideways glance.
But unfortunately, the evening was in stark contrast to how people with disabilities are regularly treated in the outside world – one example of which the foundation was in the midst of dealing with during the event.
Recently, a 15-year-old Oregon boy who won a prestigious trip to the UN was informed he would not be going and had his prize revoked after his mother told the committee she would be accompanying him on the trip due to his autism. Upon learning that Niko Boskovic had autism, the UN program said that it was not equipped to handle his special needs. As of Sunday, after much negative publicity, the program seemed to reverse its decision.
Ruderman said that the reversal was due to widespread advocacy, with his organization and others taking to social media and writing the director general of the UN.
“I think advocacy works. I think when you point out injustice to people, things change. And that’s a lot of what the foundation is engaged in– trying to point out injustice,” he said.
‘People are automatically drawn to issues of injustice’
Ruderman explained that a majority of their work involves “rapid response” to contemporary cases of discrimination or when politicians speak in a derogatory manner about people with disabilities.
“We respond very quickly in the media with a press release and we get people to start thinking. We’ve had hundreds of other examples of this, and when you let them go silently, nothing changes. But when you speak out, and you organize the disability community to speak out, things begin to change,” he said.
During her first trip to Israel, Matlin has toured the country, meeting with other activists and people with disabilities across all sectors, including Israeli Arabs from Nazareth and representatives of Israel’s film industry. She was further scheduled to meet with over 300 people from Israel’s deaf community – in addition to trips to the Western Wall and the Knesset.
“The one thing, I think, about having Jewish values and a Jewish upbringing,” Matlin said, “is that whether you’re at temple or whatever, it’s always about how important it is to have inclusion regardless of whether somebody is able-bodied or not.
“I remember sitting in temple, my rabbi — who used sign language, I went to a temple for the deaf — my rabbi always said ‘Love thy neighbor, love people regardless of all abilities,’ and that always stuck with me. And so I’m fortunate to have a Jewish upbringing and Jewish values,” said Matlin.
“And to have been bat mitzvahed,” she said with a laugh, “just puts icing on the cake.”