Platcha Auditorium was overflowing with people waiting to hear Marlee Matlin speak.
With almost all 1,226 seats filled 15 minutes before the event began, latecomers lined up against the walls. According to event organizers, attendees started lining up for the event two and a half hours before it began.
When Matlin finally arrived on stage Wednesday night, the entire audience raised their hands in visual applause.
Matlin, who has been deaf since she was 18 months old, started her speech in a boast of pride, exclaiming that her deafness was nothing she needed to be cured from. With the assistance of her personal interpreter Jack Jason, she spoke of a recent news item that proclaimed a potential cure for deafness.
“Stories about cures make great headlines, but at the end of the day, we are talking about millions of deaf people,” Matlin said. “We need others to not look at our perceived disabilities, but to look at our abilities.”
Matlin is the only deaf actress to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She won the award for her role in “Children of a Lesser God,” and has been nominated for various prestigious awards, including four Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe Award.
She has also appeared in a variety of television series, appearing on “Desperate Housewives,” “My Name Is Earl,” “CSI: NY” and “Nip/Tuck.” She was also a finalist on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Most recently, she has attained recognition for her role in the ABC Family drama “Switched At Birth.”
Matlin said growing up as a deaf child was not always easy, and early on, she felt unsuited for the world.
“As an adult, I look back at the anger as the result of the way the world passed over someone who was deaf,” Matlin said. “When all I wanted to do was embrace it.”
Matlin said her worldview started to change when she learned how to sign. Sign language allowed her to communicate in a way that was meaningful for her.
“Now, my hands were my partners in communication,” Matlin said. “There was a whole world of people who talked the same way I did.”
She spoke fondly of actor Henry Winkler, perhaps most famous for playing Fonzie on “Happy Days,” who she described as one of the most important people in her life.
According to Matlin, when she first came up to him as a child and asked him is she could be an actor, Winkler said, “Marlee, you can be whatever you want to be if you follow your heart.”
Years later, when Marlee won her first Academy Award and came under waves of criticism for being a deaf actor, Winkler repeated the same message to her, with an added line.
“You’re not finished, not by a long shot,” Winkler said.
Matlin said the most important thing a deaf child can have is a mentor.
“A child in a different world needs stability,” Matlin said.
Marlee ended her speech with a proclamation.
“Although most people think I live in silence, silence is the last thing the world will hear from me,” Matlin said.
Junior James Willard said Matlin’s talk had great meaning to him.
“She’s one of my favorite actresses,” the Northville native said. “I live with an older brother with autism and Down syndrome, and seeing the many struggles he and my parents have faced, I appreciate a lot of what she said”
Kelly Irwin said she knew Matlin from the TV show “Switched At Birth,” and was impressed with many of the sentiments expressed in Matlin’s speech.
“She had an amazing story,” the South Lyon junior said. “Her message to be true to yourself no matter what the obstacles was really inspiring.”
Susan Naeve-Velguth, a communications disorder professor and an organizer of the event, said the organizers expected a large turnout, but were blown away by the attendance numbers.
“We expected a lot of people, of course, but the amount of people who came was truly remarkable,” Naeve-Velguth said. “I think it’s because she’s really popular right now. A lot of people know her from ‘Switched At Birth,’ so we got her at the right time. But also, something about her message appeals to people, and that had a lot to do with it.”