15 Inspiring Famous People With Disabilities & How They Persevered

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A grid of three celebrities with disabilities: Hellen Keller book, Stevie Wonder performing and Christopher Reeve walk of fame star.

Many people live with disabilities. Some disabilities are those we can see; others we cannot. Disabilities can vary in severity and how they affect people, even among individuals with the same one. The term disability refers to a wide range of mental and physical conditions that can impact a person’s ability to engage in certain activities, as well as restrict interactions with others. A disability can affect anyone, including famous people.

Rather than allowing their disability to hold them back, these remarkable people have overcome significant adversity to make a lasting impact on the world. Discover more about the accomplishments of these famous folks and celebrities with disabilities.

Defining Disability

“Disability” can be a hard term to define as it affects everyone differently. Disabilities often fall under four main categories: 1) behavioral or emotional, 2) physical, 3) developmental, and 4) sensory impaired disorders. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines three dimensions of disability:

  • Impairment – This can be impairment of mental functioning, body function, or structure, including the loss of limb, memory loss, or loss of vision. Impairment can be related to a structural problem with the body, or it can be tied to a functional impairment or loss of function.
  • Activity Limitation – Limitations and difficulty in primary activities such as hearing, walking, seeing, or problem-solving.
  • Participation Restrictions – Unable to participate fully, or restrictions that impact daily activity, including self-care, obtaining health care, working, social and recreational activities.

Disabilities can be present at birth due to a genetic disorder, and some can be inherited, with symptoms presenting later in life. Others may be associated with developmental conditions related to a long-term or degenerative condition and can be intermittent or progressive. Others are caused by injury, either in the womb or later in life.

People with disabilities have protection under a federal civil rights law, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals in everyday activities. This law ensures disabled individuals have the same access and opportunity as everyone else.

15 Famous People With Disabilities

We love famous people because they seem larger than life, better than us, perfect in a way. However, we increasingly realize that celebrities and other famous folks are regular people who can be affected by disabilities. According to the WHO, an estimated one in six people worldwide experience significant disability.

Like us, some famous people are incredibly open about their disabilities, while others keep them more private. Below, I detail 15 famous people with disabilities and their remarkable accomplishments. They are not listed in any particular order, and we celebrate the accomplishments of all individuals with disabilities.

Helen Keller

Hand holding Helen Keller's book "The Story of My Life."
Helen Keller’s book “The Story of My Life” is popular around the world.

Many people have learned about Helen Adams Keller, one of the most well-known disabled people and disability advocates. She was born a healthy child in 1880 in Alabama. At 19 months old, she was left both blind and deaf after a bout with “brain fever,” now thought to be scarlet fever. She could not communicate and had fits of temper. Helen was considered a wild, unteachable child, with no one who could understand or engage with her.

Helen’s parents hired a teacher, Anne Sullivan, herself partially blind, to come and work with her. Anne and Helen made remarkable progress together. At first, Sullivan was Helen’s teacher but then became her friend and lifelong companion. With Sullivan’s help, Helen attended both Radcliffe College and Harvard University and became the first deafblind individual in the United States to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Sullivan, in her own right, was a significant force for the rights and progress of disabled individuals.

Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish is a groundbreaking singer and Grammy Award winner, but many may not know that she has Tourette’s syndrome. Tourette’s syndrome goes by several names, including Tourette’s disorder, GTS, Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, TS, and Tourette’s. This syndrome is characterized by several tics that come and go throughout the affected individual’s daily life. Tics generally include vocal tics as well as motor tics.

Tourette’s syndrome is an inherited neurological disorder. Researchers have yet to understand the cause of Tourette’s syndrome fully. Other famous people with Tourette’s include Tim Howard (goalkeeper for the Manchester United soccer team,) Dan Ackroyd, Howard Hughes, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Michael Wolff (American Jazz pianist,) and Jam Eisenreich (professional baseball player.)

In the video below, Billie Eilish discusses her life with Tourette’s.

Bettie Page

Bettie Page was a famous American fashion model who gained fame for her provocative pinup photos. Nicknamed the “Queen of Pinups,” Page was beloved for her beauty but faced a battle with mental illness. The beauty queen was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia and sadly suffered many bouts of despair, violence, and nervous breakdowns. Schizophrenia is a profoundly severe mental condition that involves a breakdown and disconnect in the relationship between thought, emotion, and behavior.

Schizophrenia is a commonly misunderstood psychiatric disorder in which sufferers experience severe impairments in the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. These individuals also experience difficulty in expressing themselves in reality and frequently suffer several symptoms, including paranoia, delusions, auditory hallucinations, disorganized thinking and speech, and general dysfunction in “normal” life patterns and behaviors.

Other famous people affected by schizophrenia include John Nash (American mathematician,) Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd band member,) James Beck Gordan, Lionel Aldridge (NFL player,) Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac guitarist,) Mary Todd Lincoln, Andy Goram, Tom Harrell (American jazz musician,) Vaclav Nijinsky (Polish ballet dancer), and Rose Williams (sister to Tennessee Williams.)

Carl Jung

Carl Jung, the founder of psychology, suffered from psychotic symptoms and depression and was diagnosed with epilepsy. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that involves seizures that reoccur due to neuronal activity within the brain that is synchronous, abnormal, or excessive.

Other famous people affected by epilepsy include actor Danny Glover, Neil Young, Charles Dickens, Elton John, Theodore Roosevelt, Edgar Allen Poe, George Frederick Handel (composer), and the iconic and beloved musician Prince.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie was an extremely popular and prolific author, the mind behind many famous mysteries. Christie suffered from dysgraphia, a learning disability that impacts an individual’s ability to translate their thoughts into written language. Dysgraphia affects many individuals. Other celebrities with learning disabilities include the actor Daniel Radcliffe, actor Henry Winkler, the one and only Cher, and supermodel and actress Cara Delevingne.

Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis, a beloved actor and family man, was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. The disease is degenerative and has impacted his mental function and everyday life. Dementia is characterized by declining cognitive function that results from brain disease or brain damage that cannot be attributed to that expected from the normal aging process. Dementia can affect several areas of cognitive functioning, including language, attention, problem-solving, and memory.

Other famous people with a dementia diagnosis include acclaimed actor Robin Williams, civil rights icon Rosa Parks, acclaimed NCAA women’s basketball coach Pat Summit, and actress Rita Hayworth.

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder performs onstage during day 1 of the 2015 Life Is Beautiful Festival on September 25, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Stevie Wonder performs onstage during the Life Is Beautiful Festival on September 25, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The incredibly famous Stevie Wonder is a famed singer and pianist who is blind. Wonder was born six weeks prematurely and given oxygen. Unfortunately, he was given too much, resulting in retinopathy of prematurity. This disease left him blind at six weeks old. Despite his disability, he learned to play piano, drums, and harmonica by age nine and was a talented singer by age 10. At age 12, he secured his first recording contract with Motown Records.

Other famous people impacted by sight impairment and blindness include Harriet Tubman (Underground Railroad activist,) Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd President of the United States,) Galileo Galilei (Italian astronomer,) Andrea Bocelli (Italian singer,) Claude Monet (French painter,) Ray Charles (American musician,) Doc Watson (American guitar player and singer,) Apl.de.ap (Black Eyed Peas rapper,), Ella Fitzgerald (American jazz singer,), and Johann Sebastian Bach (composer).

Michael J Fox

Michael J Fox, our beloved Marty McFly, has long been famous for his acting skills and prolific battle with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder in which the nerve cells responsible for producing dopamine break down. Dopamine sends signals to the brain to initiate purposeful, smooth movements. However, movement becomes less voluntary when these nerve cells break down.

The most common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are tremors, rigidity of the muscles, slow physical movement, and sometimes a complete loss of physical movement. Sadly, the disease is progressive, and symptoms worsen over time.

Other famous folks with Parkinson’s disease include rocker Ozzy Osbourne, singer Linda Ronstadt, comedian Billy Connolly, politician Janet Reno, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Pope John Paul II, and the great boxer Muhammad Ali.

Temple Grandin

Mary Temple Grandin is one of the most famous autistic people in the public eye. She is often described as one of the most influential people in the world. She is an author, professor, animal behaviorist, and autism self-advocate. She’s a pioneering advocate in the world of animal sciences, fighting for the humane treatment of livestock before slaughter. Grandin is also famous for being one of the first individuals with autism to speak publicly and share her experience living with this disability.

Autism is a group of developmental and neurological disorders. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) impacts individuals of all ages, but a diagnosis often happens in early childhood. It impacts an individual’s ability to interact with others, communicate, understand emotion, learn, and behave. There’s a significant range in how autism affects people. Some individuals are extremely high-functioning, while others may be wholly nonverbal and require an elevated level of care.

Other famous people with autism include actress Daryl Hannah, artist Andy Warhol, scientist Charles Darwin, film director Stanley Kubrick, chess champion Bobby Fischer, and famed director Tim Burton.

Christina Applegate

Christina Applegate is an award-winning actress and entertainment icon with multiple sclerosis (MS). Multiple sclerosis is a disease that can disable the central nervous system, spinal cord, and brain. MS is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the myelin sheath covering nerves within the central nervous system. As these sheaths break down, the signals that travel along them as your brain sends messages to body parts are prevented, destroyed, or warped.

As the disease progresses, lesions begin to form in the brain and on the spinal cord, which interferes with normal data transmission within the central nervous system.

Other celebrities with this disability include talk show host Montel Williams, actress Selma Blair, country musician Clay Walker, comedian Richard Pryor, actor Jonathan Katz, Doctor Who actor William Hartnell, Iron Maiden drummer Clive Burr, CNN anchor John King, and actress Jami-Lynn Sigler among many others.

Christopher Reeve

Hollywood's Walk of Fame star of the beloved actor Christopher Reeve.
Hollywood’s Walk of Fame star of the beloved actor Christopher Reeve.

Christopher Reeve was an American actor, author, activist, and film director who will always be known as the face of Superman. Reeve became even more well-known for his disability. An unfortunate accident during a horseback riding competition caused Reeve to fall from his horse. He landed on his helmet in a way that broke two vertebrae in his neck. The spinal cord injury was severe. Though his spinal cord did not completely sever, he suffered a significant hemorrhage.

The accident left Reeve paralyzed from the shoulders down for the rest of his life. He required a wheelchair and a ventilator, but after his accident, he did not give up. Before his paralysis, Reeve was a political activist, and after his spinal cord injury (SCI), he became an outspoken and influential advocate for disabled people. He worked tirelessly to improve his own life, health, and condition and worked to lift and empower other disabled people. He even continued to act after his accident.

Other famous individuals who have suffered spinal cord injuries include artist Chuck Close, magazine publisher Larry Flynt, Olympic athlete Amy Van Dyken, musician Teddy Pendergrass, and actor Daryl Mitchell.

Frida Kahlo

World-renowned and iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is best known for her emotional, vibrant paintings and her interesting life. What many people do not realize is that Kahlo was a disabled woman. She was born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder occurring when the embryonic neural tube does not fully close. Children born with this disability may have incomplete deformed vertebrae and spinal cord malformations.

Frida Kahlo was born with a disability. Unfortunately, her physical pain grew much worse in her adult life. She fought a battle with polio at age six. It left her physically weak and caused her right foot and leg to be much thinner than the left. Kahlo suffered a horrific car accident, which left her severely injured. Though her injuries healed, she never fully recovered. Kahlo suffered from severe chronic pain throughout her entire life. Eventually, her pain and health declined, requiring the amputation of her toes on her right foot, the use of a prosthetic leg, and a wheelchair.

Other famous people affected by spina bifida include musicians Hank Williams Sr and John Cougar Mellencamp. Athlete Jean Driscoll and reporter Judy Woodruff were also born with the condition.

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author, and researcher known as one of the most brilliant minds ever to exist in our world. Diagnosed at age 21 with early-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Also known as motor neuron disease, the condition is a progressive, neuromuscular disease that attacks motor neurons in the spinal cord and lower brain.

The condition eventually caused Hawking to become fully paralyzed and require a wheelchair and ventilator, as well as full-time care for the rest of his life. Though he was not expected to live much longer, Hawking defied the odds and lived a full life despite having ALS for 55 more years. He became one of the most prolific scientific minds in history, an icon for disabled individuals. Hawking was a true testament to the power of the human mind to overcome obstacles and adversity.

Other famous individuals with ALS include baseball legend Lou Gehrig, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Hunter, actor David Nevin, Stephen Hillenburg (creator of SpongeBob SquarePants), jazz musician Charles Mingus, Grammy winner Roberta Flack, and Sesame Street creator Jon Stone.

Jim Abbott

Jim Abbott is now a retired left-handed American baseball pitcher and one of the most celebrated disabled athletes. He was born without a right hand. Despite many obstacles as a disabled child, Abbot developed a love and remarkable skill for baseball, particularly pitching. His connection to baseball led to many opportunities in his life, including playing college and Major League Baseball (MLB).

During his time in the MLB, Abbott played for the California Angels, the New York Yankees, the Chicago White Sox, and the Milwaukee Brewers. Throughout his time on and off the baseball field, Abbott has served as an inspiration, an example of what is possible despite the limitations of physical disability.

The video below shows pitcher Jim Abbot in action.

Other famous people with physical disabilities include Bethany Hamilton, a professional surfer and survivor of a shark attack that took her right arm, athlete Amy Purdy, and Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen.

Madeline Stuart

Madeline Stewart is an Australian fashion model who has broken down barriers as the first professional adult model with Down syndrome. She has walked the New York Fashion Week catwalk and became a worldwide phenomenon. Madeline has started her own fashion label. She has also been awarded advocacy awards for her work representing and supporting young people with disabilities worldwide.

Madeline is a true shining star who has broken down barriers in the beauty world and shown the definition of what beauty truly is. Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. Down syndrome can cause developmental delays, a range of intellectual disabilities, and some physical characteristics.

Other famous people with Down syndrome include actor Chris Burke, actress Lauren Potter, actress and model Jamie Brewer, actor Zack Gottsagen, sculptor Judith Scott, and actor Liam Bairstow.

Understanding Different Kinds Of Disabilities

Chances are you know someone with a disability. Even if they do not wear it on their sleeve or make it obvious, disability affects people from all walks of life. It is something to remember as we go through our daily activities. We do not know the adversity others face. Nor should we assume that because an individual has an obvious disability, they are any less capable than anyone else.

Disabilities include several conditions, far too many to cover here. I explain a few below to give an understanding of what some of these conditions are.

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities and disorders mean that a child or adult has difficulty learning in one or more areas in a way that doesn’t always affect intelligence and motivation. The five most common learning disabilities are ADHD, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and dyslexia. Learning disabilities often affect an individual’s ability to understand and use spoken language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements, and direct attention.

Some of the most incredible minds in history, like Albert Einstein, George Washington, and Thomas Edison, suffered from learning disabilities. Stephen Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, and Anderson Cooper are all famous names who have overcome a learning disability. Fortunately for us, these exceptional individuals did not allow this adversity to stand in the way of achieving success.

Mood Disorders

Many mood disorders affect an individual’s general emotions or mental state. Mood can be inconsistent and distorted and interfere with an individual’s circumstances. A person may feel overwhelmingly strong emotions, which impact their ability to communicate, function, and interact with others.

There are several different types of mood disorders, including major depression, bipolar disorder, mood disorders due to a general medical condition, substance-induced mood disorders, and dysthymic mood disorders. Mood disorders include panic disorders, phobias, anxiety disorders, and more.

Many famous people, including author Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, actor David Harbour, actor Mel Gibson, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, the artist Halsey, actor Maurice Bernard, actress Carrie Fisher, and many more celebrities have been affected by mood disorders.

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are a mental health condition that causes people to have a lifelong pattern of viewing themselves and others in a way that can cause difficulty and misunderstanding. These disorders often cause individuals to have a challenging time understanding emotions and handling themselves under distress. Their impulsive behavior makes it very difficult for them to interact with others, carry out functional social activities, perform well at work and school, and maintain family relationships.

There are several different personality disorders, including paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders. The famed artist Vincent van Gogh, author Ernest Hemingway, musician Amy Winehouse, comedian Pete Davidson, Brittany Spears, actor Jim Carrey, actress Megan Fox, and comedian Ben Stiller are all celebrities with personality disorders.

Congenital Disabilities

Congenital disabilities are congenital anomalies or malformations that occur in the uterus during a fetus’s development. In some cases, these conditions can be identified before birth. In other cases, they are not apparent until a child begins to develop and grow. These can affect an individual’s ability to think and physically function in the same way as others. Congenital disabilities include disorders such as heart defects, neural tube defects, lip, club foot, fetal alcohol syndrome, and Down syndrome.

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities include any condition significantly limiting or interfering with basic physical activities. These include walking, climbing, reaching, lifting, carrying, and any other physical limitation that might prevent someone from successfully being able to perform basic living tasks. Physical disability can include stroke, spina bifida, arthritis, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and muscular dystrophy.

Deafness And Hearing impairment

Deafness and other hearing impairments can occur at birth but also can result from sudden or progressive illness. Hearing loss can sometimes be inherited or due to a genetic defect during pregnancy. Some very famous people, including Ludwig Van Beethoven, Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girls Scouts), actresses Halle Berry, Marlee Matlin, and Millie Bobby Brown, have all been impacted by deafness or hearing loss.

Visual impairment And blindness

Blindness and sight impairment affect individuals born without the ability to perceive light or physical form. It can mean partial or complete blindness. Sight loss is a disability that can be present from birth or can develop throughout the lifetime because of illness, accident, or progressive disease. Many famous people have been affected by sight impairment. This list includes the famed French painter Claude Monet, actress Judy Dench, musician Ray Charles, and many other gifted individuals.

Supporting Those Living With Disabilities

Living with disabilities is a reality for over 42.5 million Americans and millions of others worldwide. Disability touches our lives whether we have one ourselves, are the parent of a child with a disability, the relative of someone with a disability, the friend or coworker of a disabled individual, or an advocate for the disability community. Disability does not mean limitation. Nor does it mean that an individual has less chance of success or a happy life. Many disabilities offer obstacles, challenges, and adversity but also open doors to extraordinary accomplishments and connections.

Be A Disability Ally

I have been a disability ally my entire life. I have family members who have lifelong disabilities that require extra support and care. Through that experience and my work as an educator of children with disabilities, I have seen first-hand how remarkable the human mind, body, and spirit is.

Showing kindness and compassion to people with disabilities is one of the most significant and powerful ways to offer support. Avoid using labels, negative terminology, or making unkind assumptions about people with disabilities. it helps to learn more about specific conditions, like autism, so you can understand different perspectives. Always show any individual with disabilities the utmost respect, and never talk down to them. Respect their personal space, boundaries, and comfort level. You can also learn more about tools like communication apps that can help make interaction and understanding easier.

It’s always important to ask a disabled individual before offering your assistance. You never want to jump in and take over for someone perfectly capable of doing something themselves. Show compassion, do not be intrusive, and try to find ways to connect through common interests and experiences.

One of the biggest obstacles disabled individuals face is inclusion and being thought of as regular, whole individuals just like everyone else. Kindness is key, compassion is essential, and commitment to being a disability ally is lifelong.

Have you supported an individual with a disability, or have a person with a disability who has inspired you? Please share with us in the comments.

Why Trust Safe Smart Living?

Danielle has several years of experience working as an educator with children with severe and profound disabilities. She has assisted and supported many individuals with physical and developmental disabilities and those with mental and mood disorders. Danielle has years of experience and specialized training in assistive technology, behavior therapies, autism specialized training, life skills, medical support, crisis management and intervention, and supporting those with severe illnesses. Additionally, she is a professional researcher dedicated to bringing people information to help better their lives.

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