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In 1987, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Marlee Matlin the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her heralding performance in the film Children of a Lesser God, symbolizing an unprecedented selection, as it was and continues to be, the only deaf actor to ever win the prestigious award.
Today, 30 years later, the Ruderman Family Foundation has chosen to award Matlin with its annual Morton E. Ruderman Award of $100,000, for her lifelong activism for people with disabilities. However, even all this time later not much has changed for people with disabilities in Hollywood. Those with disabilities are still on the outside looking in, even while the topic of diversity at the Oscars is much discussed. Just last year, the Ruderman Family Foundation released a white paper study that found an astonishing 95% of television characters with a disability in top TV shows are played by able-bodied actors.
In this environment of exclusion of performers with disabilities, Marlee Matlin stands out with 59 acting credits, a Golden Globes win and fourteen more nominations for various awards over the span of her career. We know her from popular shows like The West Wing, The L Word, Switched at Birth, and she also voices Stella on Family Guy. She promotes the cause of inclusion with each of her appearances, showing millions that people with disabilities belong in the mainstream. But in addition to her visibility as a celebrity, she also has been a very strong proponent of closed captioning on all shows. Matlin is often given the credit for the now-mandatory availability of closed captions on streaming services–something that did not readily exist before. All these aspects of her career demonstrate her commitment to inclusion.
Building on Matlin’s work and that of many other inclusion pioneers, the Foundation just recently launched the ‘Ruderman TV Challenge’, designed to reach television executives and content creators calling on them to cast more actors with disabilities this pilot season. After tracking and studying the pilots picked up for production, the results will be released prior to the Emmys in September 2017.
“Marlee Matlin is the embodiment of a force that has broken down barriers and changed perceptions of people with disabilities worldwide. Her long and celebrated career in Hollywood serves as a shining example of the value of including people with disabilities in our society,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “I am very proud that she is the recipient of the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion. We know that Marlee will continue to be a leading activist who will change reality and help build a more just and inclusive world.”
Marlee Matlin has forged a successful career as an actress, refusing to let her disability restrict her from achieving her dream. She has acted in over 60 film and television programs in her illustrious career, which includes an autobiography titled, “I’ll Scream Later” released in 2009. Outside of Children of a Lesser God, Matlin might be best known for her role in The West Wing, where she starred in seventeen episodes across all seasons.
The Award, now in its fourth year, was named after Morton E. Ruderman, a founder of the Ruderman Family Foundation. A successful entrepreneur, mentor and proud family man, he saw his success as the result of help he received from others and was therefore passionate about providing opportunities for others – including assisting many people in becoming independent and successful in business. In years’ prior, the award has gone to advocates from across the spectrum, including former Iowa Senator and driving force behind the Americans with Disability Act, Senator Tom Harkin, self-advocate Ari Ne’eman and Harvard Professor Dr. Michael Stein.