Breakthrough Awards Aaron Sorkin
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The National Assn. of the Deaf’s inaugural Breakthrough Awards honored Marlee Matlin, Aaron Sorkin and “Switched at Birth’s” producer Lizzy Weiss in a gala Thursday at the Hollywood Roosevelt.

The event celebrated those who have paved the way for deaf and hard of hearing artists in Hollywood and the media. The NAD, established in 1880, is the oldest civil-rights organization in the U.S.

Following the silent auction and cocktail hour, emcees Constance Marie (“Switched at Birth”) and deaf actor and producer John Maucere officially kicked things off. Throughout the night, American Sign Language interpreters signed and spoke to ensure that both hearing and deaf attendees could follow along.

In his introduction, Bradley Whitford alluded to the many projects on Sorkin’s resume saying, “There are only a few good men who are as multi-talented as this visionary. Every newsroom should have an introducer like him, and every American president should have a writer like him.”

Sorkin, who worked with both Whitford and Matlin on “The West Wing,” discussed his decision to cast Matlin in the role of Joey Lucas.

“When I wrote that character, Joey Lucas, into ‘The West Wing,’ I didn’t think ‘I want to write a hearing-impaired character.’ Like any writer, I want to work with the very best actors and actresses that are out there, and that means Marlee Matlin,” he explained.

Sorkin then joked, “If Marlee Matlin is playing a character, that character is going to be hearing-impaired, just as when Brad Whitford is playing a character, that character is going to have a dumb look on their face.”

“Switched at Birth” actress Vanessa Marano then took the stage to present to Weiss, who came up with the idea for her ABC Family show – the first TV series with a predominantly deaf or hard of hearing cast – while listening to a radio show and hearing about two women who were switched at birth.

Weiss’ 6-year-old son then stole the show by surprising his mom onstage during her speech.

Weiss, who is hearing, described her extensive research prior to penning the pilot and said she can relate to her characters and the deaf community.

“I’m not deaf, but I am a woman and I am a Jew,” Weiss said. “There are times when being on the outside is frustrating or infuriating – when you feel left out, misunderstood or misrepresented, or when you’re considered different simply because someone else is defining what the norm is.”

NAD CEO Howard Rosenblum presented the final award of the night to Matlin, who received a standing ovation. The two first met 40 years ago through a children’s theater for the deaf.

Matlin noted that the hotel was the site of the first Academy Awards and recalled her own Oscar experience 27 years ago.

“That was the moment that changed not only my life, but the life of every single actor and artist who was deaf or hard of hearing who preceded me and who followed me,” Matlin said. “It was our moment of ‘Yes we can.’ ”

Matlin also described the harsh criticism she faced after winning an Oscar for playing a deaf character.

“What, in essence, they were saying was that I, despite Hollywood’s highest honor, was handicapped and DOA – deaf on arrival,” she explained. “We all know that’s not the case, and the answer is right here in this ballroom.”

After her speech, Matlin got the crowd dancing as deaf rapper Sean Forbes closed out the night with a performance of his inspirational song with a title that summed up the event’s message: “Don’t Let Anything Hold You Back.”

Other honorees included deaf theater artist Bernard Bragg, PepsiCo’s Clay Broussard and Marilyn Magness of Disney Entertainment.

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