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Are deaf people “retarded?”: Marlee Matlin and stigmas on hearing loss

Marlee Matlin responds to claims deaf people retarded

Like anyone with a hearing loss, I’ve had to bust through preconceptions and prejudices all my life.

The word, “retard” is one that has come up a few times. 

Last week, this stigmas made headlines with actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, commandeering the news cycle with her rebuttal against the U.S. Presidential candidate who allegedly called her “retarded” during her appearance on TV’s The Apprentice.

It angered her. It angers me. In fact, there’s a lot more outrage over that comment than I expected. If there’s anything making me feel good today, it’s the outrage I see from people who’ve never been hearing impaired.

Words Hurt

That word alone is one I loathe – “retard.” Matlin called the word “abhorrent” and I agree. It’s frequently used as a denigration, an insult by folks in mainstream media constantly. Often, it’s used to describe anyone with any kind of developmental hindrances, including those with Down’s Syndrome.

But get to know people with Down’s or other challenges and you’ll find they exude an irrepressible light and charm. My father worked with “special needs” people in his younger years, and I grew up around them. The lesson I learned was that we all have our strengths and gifts. We all have our struggles and challenges. No one deserves to be tarnished with an insult like “retard”.

“…we all have our strengths and gifts. We all have our struggles and challenges. No one deserves to be tarnished with an insult like “retard”.”

Times Change

We’ve come a long way since my childhood, in how we understand things like hearing impairment. Some folks haven’t changed with the times, but we can’t wait for them to evolve. We must confront ignorance every time it arises.

As a child, doctors wanted me to attend a “deaf school” in the ‘80s. My mother refused, worried that if I went to a school for deaf kids I’d be judged and discriminated against my whole life. They compromised and I spent my mornings in deaf kindergarten and my afternoons in regular kindergarten. I performed equally well in both. 

Other parents or youths with hearing loss choose to go other routes with their education and preferred methods of communication. 

In the end, it’s a matter of choice. The best thing we can do is give children with hearing loss the opportunity to thrive, whichever situation they’re in. In so doing, we stem the tide of prejudice in childhood, before it becomes entrenched in adulthood. 

Appearances Are Deceiving

Talk to me today and you’d be easily convinced if I told you I’ve been a regular AM radio guest on talk shows and interviewed on live television. I’m well-spoken and educated. I’m snappy, witty, and my humour is razor-sharp and faster than Usain Bolt running 100 metres. Today I’m globe-trotting with no home. My hearing loss has not impeded me in Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Mexico, or anywhere else I’ve been blessed to live. Technology helps me, but so does intelligence and resilience. 

Times were different in my youth. Then, I spoke as indistinctly as Matlin does now. That’s the price one pays when they grow up unable to hear distinct sounds – they need training to speak better. Once my hearing was corrected with hearing aids, my speech slowly improved, thanks to four years of speech therapy. Today my voice is clear, powerful, and resonant.

Matlin, alternatively, relies upon sign language to be her voice. But even with her severe hearing loss, she proves that being Deaf doesn’t impede her ability to think or express ideas or form strong opinions about life. She has achieved amazing things in her career thus far. Thirty years ago she won the Best Actress Academy Award, and still remains the only deaf winner. Since then, she’s acted in countless roles, including The West Wing. In 2009, she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And what of her turn on The Apprentice? She earned what stands as the most money ever raised for a charitable event on the series — $986,000.

“That doesn’t impede her ability to think or express ideas or form strong opinions about life.”

I believe my inability to hear well in my youth likely contributed to making me the person I am today. The writer, photographer, and world traveler, because I’m all about observing the world and recording it for others. I’ve learned that even our shortcomings can be gifts.

Battling Ignorance

Perhaps some people genuinely don’t realize one can speak indistinctly yet be off-the-charts smart. That’s a thing, you know. Matlin is a brilliant woman and expresses herself as well as anyone, but in a way that most people can’t grasp, due to her use of sign language.

Her lack of hearing has not hindered her ability to be more than “just an actress.” She is an advocate, an activist, a decorated philanthropist, a trustee for a university, an author of four books, a mother of four children, and even has a doctorate.

But still, people see her as being deaf and only being deaf, when she is clearly so much more than that.

A Discrimination Story

I’ve come across judgmental folks in my own life. I’ve been discriminated against in jobs. As a journalism student doing my internship, my editor refused to send me to press conferences or to interview anyone – until an interview with someone hearing-impaired came up, then I was sent to do that. I don’t know what he was thinking, maybe he felt we’re all in some magical club together where only we can decode each other’s world-views.

In the end, I nearly failed that internship because I wasn’t given any work, then failed for “not showing initiative.” But initiative is hard to show when someone thinks you’re idiot regardless of your output.

It enraged my professor was outraged, and said I was among the most promising students he’d taught in 20 years. He fought that editor on my behalf, and I today I have a journalism degree. My day job now is as an editor in the TV industry, where I – ironically – edit closed captioning for the hearing-impaired for my living. Even more ironically, it’s my hearing aids that make me so great at my job, since the technology allows for noise-cancellation when I’m working.

We Are Not Our Hearing Loss

People like Matlin may face true challenges from being deaf in a hearing world, but they spend their lifetime learning how to circumvent those challenges. There’s a kind of resilience that breeds in us when we constantly have to prove we’re more than what people see.

“There’s a kind of resilience that breeds in us when we constantly have to prove we’re more than what people see.”

Today, my hearing is corrected with the most powerful hearing aids I’ve ever worn and it has certainly made my life easier, but it hasn’t made me smarter. It hasn’t made me more capable at writing or a sharper photographer. It hasn’t improved my personality or made me funnier. All those qualities are innate to who I am; they have nothing to do with my hearing loss.

I can’t presume to speak for everyone born with hearing loss, but I suspect many would agree with me –we want to be judged for what we do, how we work, who we are, and how we act. We do not want to be judged for what we are not. Our hearing being imperfect has no basis in who we are professionally.

It’s 2016. Technology has made life easier for people those of us with hearing loss. But that same technology also means we are routinely subjected to the ignorance and hatred of those who stereotype others based on outdated opinions.

We are not our hearing aids. We are not our hearing loss. Like Walk Whitman wrote, we contain multitudes, despite whatever assumptions and prejudices others may have of us. Luckily, whether in writing, speech, or sign language, like Matlin has done today, we can speak up and shatter stereotypes that affect us all.

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a writer and photographer from Vancouver, Canada, who’s gone “Full Nomad” and sold everything she owned to travel the world for five years. She’s working as a digital nomad wherever there’s a reasonably decent internet connection. She’s worn hearing aids since she was two, and currently wears Phonak Naída V90-SPs.


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