Oscar and Golden Globe winning Deaf actress, Marlee Matlin was instrumental in getting legislation passed in the USA Congress in support of closed captioning. Now, she has partnered with Viki, the global TV site, to back Billion Words March – a global campaign to push for complete and accurate closed captions across online TV shows and movies. She’s a best-selling author, multi- award nominated actress and has broken records for her charity fundraising


I’ve always been a big proponent of equal access. I started when I was a young girl and wrote a letter to President Ford asking him to close caption TV to allow people who are Deaf and hard of hearing to watch TV and movies, like their hearing peers. 

I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to: Help pass legislation ensuring that all TV and broadband broadcasts is closed captioned here in the USA.

Viki is powered by its fans. Crowd sourcing adds to the ownership and level of engagement in the campaign because: You can SEE the results almost immediately and there is a satisfaction that YOU had something to do with the success of the campaign. The world has gotten so impersonal, driven by big corporations and big governments who are making decisions that don’t take everyone into consideration. Crowd sourcing allows you to get involved and make you feel part of the process. I love it.

This will help break down the language barriers and unite the Deaf community across the world. For every person that speaks a different language, there is an opportunity to create a subtitled version of programming in that language. There are already over 170 languages represented on Viki with more to come. It ultimately levels the playing field so everyone can enjoy programming available on the Internet. For Deaf people outside the USA this is a win-win because unlike in the USA, there are no laws to ensure equal access for them; Viki has changed that!


You’ve championed the right in choosing communication methods for all people. Is navigating the world of Deaf culture and politics difficult?

It’s tough to be seen as someone who has political views when it comes to Deaf culture when all I am is just an actress. But I do my best as I appreciate the fact that I have access to a large public forum to express my views. In the end, I always try to embrace all perspectives and sometimes even that gets me in hot water!

You’ve attracted attention in the past for choosing to communicate orally, versus strictly in sign language. I chose what’s best for myself. Sometimes that’s sign, sometimes that’s voice and 99 per cent of the time it’s both. If people don’t like it, it’s their problem not mine. My parents taught me to stand up for myself and never take no for an answer. It’s about me, not who I am as a Deaf person who chooses to sign or speak.

My message to young Deaf people about how they choose to communicate: Do what works for you and don’t let anyone ever tell you what you should do. Be your own person, simple as that.

My message to parents and educational authorities about having to choose one form of communication (oral only) over sign language: I would prefer people not choose OVER sign language. Oral only ignores the fact that the hands and eyes can be so helpful in making communication 100 per cent understood. Using only oral is not 100 per cent effective. But it is a great tool when combined with sign language. I say use both and choose what works for whatever situation you’re in.


My first film was the most character shaping. I went from suburban Chicago girl to actress on a movie set and I was only 19 years old. I also think a defining moment was
the one just after I won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and entered myself into rehab to ensure I lived a sober life. It meant that when I got the Oscar a few months later, I was clean and sober. That was very important to me. And I’ve been sober ever since!

I’ve backed a lot of campaigns and championed causes. A personal challenge I’m especially proud of: Achieving 100 per cent access to TV broadcasts in the USA with closed captioning.

You’ve been open about your abuse, drug use and feelings of isolation growing up. What inspires you to continue to open up and share your personal battles? The faces of my children and of any child who encounters a barrier is what inspires me to share, speak out and help effect change. I can’t stand inequality. I couldn’t stand it in my life and I’ll be damned if I’ll let it happen in anyone else’s. 


There needs to be greater access and Deaf representation across the board. Hearing people seem to forget that Deaf people can do anything except hear. It’s up to us
in the Deaf community to show them. All we ask for is barriers to our success to come down so we can prove it.

I want to return to the UK! I was last in the UK over 20 years ago when I was fortunate to have filmed See Hear, I want to come back to the UK for a visit, do some book signings, meet the Deaf community and have a nice tour about the country!

DEAFHOPE: speaking about violence and abuse

I’m a survivor of domestic violence and have campaigned for the support service, DeafHope. Silence is not the answer when it comes to domestic violence. It can feel shameful and you can be afraid, but it was only when I spoke out did the cycle of abuse stop. No one deserves to be a victim of domestic violence. I’m more than happy to do anything to help women and men know they have a voice.

Seeking advice, information or help? Visit: www.deaf-hope.org


Best time of the day: Vacation time! 

Best advice I’ve received: ‘Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t be what you want to be.’ From Henry Winkler when I was 12 years old.

Best lesson I learnt the hard way: Sobriety when I was 21 years old. But it was the best thing I ever did for myself.

Best item in my wardrobe: Spanx!

Best last captioned film I saw was: Philomena

Best way to get noticed in a room: A strong handshake.

Best response to someone who challenges my ability to do something: Prove them wrong. And if I can’t, I’ll make sure they know I gave it 1,000 per cent.

Best way to ‘be the change’? Be your own best friend.


The Billion Words March follows the USA 2014 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate outlining new standards for accuracy, timeliness, and on-screen placement of closed captioning, ensuring full access to television programming for Americans who are Deaf and hard of hearing. 

“Our mission at Viki has always been to bring down language barriers that stand between great entertainment and fans everywhere,” said Tammy H. Nam, CMO and General Manager, Viki. “Our amazing community of fans have subtitled 600 million words to date – that’s the equivalent to 50,000 novels – in 200 languages. Our goal is access for all viewers, including hundreds of millions of people who are Deaf and hard of hearing worldwide. We can’t reach 1 billion words without the help of viewers everywhere.”

Supporters are also encouraged to caption TV shows and movies on Viki.com – joining Viki’s avid community in the march to reach a billion words translated on the platform during 2014.

Watch Marlee thank supporters - click here

Published in BDN August 2014 issue