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March 27, 2014

Breaking Through Barriers in Hollywood

by Deyane Moses

Achieving success in Hollywood is difficult. For actors with disabilities such as hearing loss, it is even tougher, since roles for the deaf are limited.  A civil rights organization is celebrating the accomplishments of deaf artists in Hollywood who have paved the way for others.

Natasha Ofili has read lips her entire life.

"I was born hearing. Then I had a high fever at 18 months and I lost my hearing at 18 months," said Ofili.

Ofili is an accomplished fashion designer and an aspiring actress. She's having her picture taken hoping her photos will get noticed by casting directors. Her photographer, who's also deaf, tells her how she's doing.

"You know how you look and your stuff," said the photographer. "Awesome!"

Ofili recently landed a lead role in a short film called "Words Not Spoken". She hopes it is the beginning of more work to come.

"For me it's like art. Like fashion is art. And when I got into acting it was very emotional - the story connecting to the character. Like it drew me into it," she said.

The popular teen drama series "Switched at Birth" is one of Ofili's favorite television shows. Constance Marie portrays a mother with a deaf daughter in the production. She had to learn American Sign Language for this role - which she did in three weeks. ​​"Working with actors that have disabilities is the exact same as working with regular actors. It just sort of opened a world for me as far as the deaf and hard of hearing community. And we have people in wheelchairs on our show and all ethnicities. It's so diverse. It's really just a celebration of what society should look like on television. In my opinion," said Marie.

But many actors say diversity in this show does not realistically reflect Hollywood.  There are a number of deaf actors working but with small roles.  Perhaps one of the most famous and admired actors within the deaf community is Oscar award-winner Marlee Matlin. The National Association of the Deaf recently honored her with a Breakthrough Award. The Association's Chief Executive Officer, Howard Rosenblum, explains why.

"She also broke the stereotypes and the barriers. People who see and hear deaf people think 'Oh! Deaf people can't do anything.' However, she, by herself, showed that we can dance, we can act, we can raise $1 million in one night. And that's what Marlee Matlin does and keeps doing by herself," said Rosenblum.

Established in 1880, the National Association of the Deaf is the oldest civil rights organization in the U.S. This year the organization sponsored the first awards ceremony to honor deaf artists in Hollywood and those who support the deaf community. Matlin said progress has been made but more can be done.

"We can do anything. We can really do anything except hear.  I'd just like to see greater creativity on the part of all involved in the creative process. Whether you talk about directors, casting directors, producers, and writers. I mean I've seen improvement here and there, somewhat,  but I don't think it's not necessarily enough," said Matlin.

Deaf artists, such as Ofili, respect Matlin's work within the community and on the screen. They say they're optimistic that shows like "Switched at Birth" are a sign of more roles to come.