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Deaf Actress Sees More Acceptance Of The Hearing Impaired

December 1, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Actress Phyllis Frelich could make you believe there is no handicap in deafness.

Frelich, who was born deaf and does not use her voice, is a Tony Award winner and was nominated for an Emmy for her role in the television production ″Love is Never Silent,″ airing today as NBC-TV’s Monday night movie.

The day has arrived when deaf instead of hearing actors are cast to play the deaf, says Frelich, and the time is near when deaf actors will get roles that emphasize the person’s character rather than the disability.

″Deafness is coming out of the closet,″ she said recently through a sign- language interpreter. ″If I had to pick a handicap, I would say it is better to be deaf than something else.″

Born to deaf parents in Devils Lake, N.D., Frelich is the oldest of nine children, all of whom are deaf. She said her parents, a seamstress and printer, ″were so proud of all of us, they thought we could do anything.″

After her 1967 graduation from Washington’s Gallaudet College - now Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf - Frelich became one of the founding members of the National Theater of the Deaf. There she met her husband, hearing actor Robert Steinberg.

The couple inspired playwright Mark Medoff to create ″Children of a Lesser God.″ And, in 1980, Frelich received a Tony award for her Broadway portrayal of Sarah, the deaf woman at the center of the play.

In a recent interview, Frelich emphasized that the drama is not a story of her life, adding she is not angry like Sarah.

″I’m frustrated - that’s a better word,″ she said. ″I’m frustrated at the ignorance, when hearing people don’t know that we are capable.″

Frelich was in Washington on Nov. 24 to accept an award from Gallaudet for her part in ″Love is Never Silent.″ Also honored were co-star Ed Waterstreet and the executive producer, Julianna Fjeld, both deaf and Gallaudet graduates.

″We are pleased that deaf people were used in the production,″ said Gallaudet president Jerry Lee. ″Years ago, hearing people were always used to play deaf roles.″

The Hallmark Hall of Fame production originally was broadcast last December and won Emmys for best directing and best drama. Frelich was nominated for best supporting actress in a dramatic role.

Hallmark spokesman Jan Parkinson said the decision to re-broadcast the drama was made before ″Children of a Lesser God″ opened as a movie, though the two films ″have helped each other.″

″Love is Never Silent″ is the story of a hearing daughter of deaf parents during the Depression and World War II. Fjeld worked 10 years to get the adaptation of the Joanne Greenberg novel ″In This Sign″ to the screen.

The parents in the movie, played by Frelich and Waterstreet, work as a seamstress and printer, but lean on their daughter, acted by Mare Winningham, to interpret the hearing world to them.

″Long ago, deaf people lived in their own world and were not accepted by society,″ Frelich said. ″Now there are many more employment opportunities.′ ′

Hearing-impaired people are more in the mainstream because of technical improvements such as closed captioned television and telephone amplification devices, and better education for the deaf, she said.

Sign language is being accepted as a legitimate form of communication, and ″an art form, like ballet,″ said Frelich.

She pointed to recent interest in the deaf, illustrated in part by the success of the two dramas, and the use of sign language in a fast-food chain’s commercial and a new music video.

″I hope this is not just a fad,″ she said.

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