Deaf Actress to 'Dance With the Stars'

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Marlee Matlin — the Oscar-winning actress who has also starred in television shows from "West Wing" to "The L Word" — will join the new season of "Dancing With the Stars."

Matlin's selection is a breakthrough for the hearing impaired, who say they are more often stigmatized by misconceptions than by their own limitations.

"I love to watch the program even though I don't have the volume on," wrote Lori DeWindt, who is deaf and grew up with deaf parents.

"It is inspiring to see different people compete given their backgrounds," said DeWindt, who is a mental health therapist at the Deaf and Wellness Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "It's nice to see that Marlee is up to the challenge."

Experts say learning to dance requires all the senses — not just hearing, but sight, touch and rhythm.

Dance troupes at two of the largest universities that serve the deaf — Gallaudet in Washington, D.C. and Rochester Institute for Technology in New York — have been thriving for decades, performing to music for both hearing and nonhearing audiences.

30 Million Are Deaf

About 30 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, and that is all that they have in common. They represent a wide range — those born profoundly deaf and others who suffered hearing loss as a result of illness or age.

Two or three children in 1,000 births have detectable hearing loss and half of all those older than 75 have hearing loss, according to the National Institute of Deafness.

"Marlee Matlin is [a] physically capable person we all knew and loved her as actress for many years," Angela Prince of USA Dance, the national governing body for ballroom dancing. "Dance has open arms and embraces everyone."

Singer Marie Osmond, one of the show's most popular stars, has a brother who is deaf and took dance classes, according to American Dancer Magazine.

"I understand that they would tap out the rhythm on his shoulder, and then he was off to the races," wrote editor Sean Fisher.

Entertainment Weekly's Lynette Rice reported several weeks ago that Matlin was in the cast line-up.

"They went after her, and it seems to make sense," she said. "They've established a trend to break prejudices — we've seen it with Heather Mills [former wife of Paul McCartney who danced with a prosthetic] — [and] to defy the odds."

Bob Pollard, a psychologist who works at the University of Rochester's Deaf Wellness Center, told ABCNEWS.com that the single greatest misconception about the deaf is that they live in total silence.

"That is almost never the case," he said. "The vast majority have some degree of residual hearing, especially in the low frequency arena. There are lots of people who enjoy music to varying degrees."

The deaf often "crank up the bass" on the stereo or put the speakers facedown on the floor, so the vibrations are "more obvious," according to Pollard. Others stand close to the speakers to maximize the reception.

Rock Band Interpreters

Many rock bands hire their own interpreters so the deaf can enjoy their lyrics at concerts. For years, the Grateful Dead hired an onstage American Sign Language interpreter who was specifically trained for the arts and music, according to Pollard.

The deaf community — which defines itself as a cultural group that shares American Sign Language — also creates music and poetry, according to Pollard.

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