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When Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar at age 21, she was the first deaf person to do so. 34 years later, she is still the only deaf actor to have won the award.
The actress, who has been deaf since she was 18 months old after a childhood illness, has been advocating for more inclusion of the deaf community in Hollywood since being thrust into the spotlight at 21. Matlin tells PEOPLE she wants to remind others to expand their mindset about what diversity and inclusion really means.
"A lot of people forget that diversity also includes deaf and disabled people," Matlin, 55, tells PEOPLE via her interpreter and longtime friend Jack Jason. "I'm still seeing lack of representation, whether you're talking about in magazines, or online, or on television, or in film. I still feel we've got to remind people constantly."
Matlin's long list of advocacy work includes successfully petitioning the Academy of Arts and Sciences to add subtitles to its awards screeners, and supporting the efforts of the National Association of the Deaf in requiring the White House to provide onscreen sign language interpreters at press conferences. Most recently, during pre-production on her critically acclaimed film CODA (streaming on AppleTV+ Aug. 13), she demanded that the production hire deaf actors to play the deaf characters in the film, which is about a teenage girl who is the only hearing member of her family.
"I said I would walk off if they hired a hearing actor to play the deaf father. That's not something that I take for granted any longer," Matlin says. "I was actually surprised that they listened.
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"In this particular case, I did have clout," she continues (deaf actor Troy Katsur was hired for the role). "I was speaking on behalf of my community too. Playing deaf or disabled is not a costume. There's no offense to those previously cast roles where people might've played a disabled characters: Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. I mean, they're all great actors. I really have the utmost respect for them, but I can't imagine us doing that any longer," she says. "There are plenty of deaf actors, plenty of actors with disabilities who are equally able to play those roles."
Matlin says she's encouraged by some of the positive steps and changes she's seen, but that "there is more work to be done."
"There's one thing I'm really tired of, which is people who don't take the time to learn about us," she says. "You can't get angry at people who don't know anything about deaf culture or deaf people, because they weren't exposed, they weren't taught, they never experienced it. I don't get upset with that, but I can get upset with the denial of my rights, oppression of accessibility, my right to accessibility, of being included."
Apple TV + Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin in CODA
What Matlin loves most about CODA is that audiences "get to watch a deaf family grow and learn," she says. "I was really proud to be part of this very beautiful film. We want people to know there's a culture out there other than what the [hearing community] experiences, and it deserves respect and attention. I do hope that when the movie comes out, that people will come up and say, 'Hey, I love this film, the whole package.' And I hope that they will say, 'Thank you for doing something so different like this. Thank you for teaching us, thank you for inspiring us, thank you for telling us a great story.'"
Meanwhile Matlin, who is next set to star in a workplace comedy about a deaf interpreter, says she is always hustling for new opportunities and challenges.
"I still have to hustle, I still have to look for work," she says. "But I'm proud of the fact that I've been happy with the work that I've done, and recognized for the work that I've done, whether we're talking about Seinfeld, The West Wing or Switched at Birth. I'm proud of the fact that when I work with people on set, that I'm able to make an impact on them, and show them what a deaf actor can do. How we can achieve, together."
CODA is available to stream on AppleTV+ Aug. 13.