Did you know that some of history’s most famous high achievers also lived with disability? From scholars to artists, to actors and presidents, and activists – these are some notable examples from around the world.
1) Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking was one of the most well-known physicists in the world, and was diagnosed with ALS when he was 21.
Hawking spoke with the assistance of a computer in the later years of his life and was a full-time powerchair user since the 1980s. His in-depth studies of the universe, specifically the framework of general relativity and quantum mechanics, became a popular introduction to the field for lay persons, and Hawking was a popular figure in pop culture as well – appearing on hugely popular television shows such as The Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation. His best-selling work, A Brief History of Time, stayed on the Sunday Times bestsellers list for an astounding 237 weeks.
A beloved leader who helped guide the nation successfully through World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is considered to be one of the greatest American presidents. FDR was perhaps one of the most famous wheelchair users in history, having contracted polio while drinking water at a campground, which resulted in his paralysis from the waist down.
Unfortunately during this era, Roosevelt’s paralysis wasn’t made public until years later due to fear of the public doubting his competency as a result of his disability.
3) Ralph Braun
The late founder of the Braun Corporation – one of the leading manufacturers of wheelchair accessible vehicles – and named “a champion of change” by President Barack Obama, Ralph Braun was a man who thrived on bringing the freedom of mobility to people living with disabilities.
Born with muscular dystrophy, Ralph started his career in 1966 when he created the first wheelchair accessible van with hand controls and in 1991 Ralph’s company, BraunAbility, created the first accessible minivan. Braun’s vision has brought mobility via four wheels to millions of people around the world.
4) John Hockenberry
An American journalist and author, four-time Emmy Award winner, and three-time Peabody Award winner, John Hockenberry is one of the most successful journalists in history. He worked for Dateline in the late 1990s, and was one of the first journalists to work with a visible disability on an American network; a wheelchair due to spinal cord injury. John also wrote the book Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence, and has been a radio host of The Takeaway, a live national news program on Public Radio since 2008.
5) Marlee Matlin
Marlee is an Academy Award winning actress, known for her leading role in Children of a Lesser God (1986). Deaf since the age of 18 months due to a genetically malformed cochlea, Matlin also received a Golden Globe Award for her role in Children of a Lesser God, and has since gone on to guest star in many high profile television series such as The L Word and Law & Order: SVU. She has also appeared on reality shows such as The Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars.
6) Stevie Wonder
Legendary musician, singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder was born blind, due to being six weeks premature and the blood vessels at the back of his eyes not having yet reached maturation.
Considered a child prodigy, Stevie signed with his first record label at age 11, Motown’s Tamla label, and has been performing since. Over his wildly successful music career, Stevie has recorded more than 30 American top ten hits, including his singles “Superstition,” “Sir Duke”, and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
7) Frida Kahlo
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, and lived with disability resulting from both polio as a six-year-old, and a trolley accident as a teenager.
Frida is most known for her self-portraits, and while her tumultuous relationship and marriages with other famed Mexican artist, Diego Rivera have come to feature heavily in current considerations of her life and work, she will always be known for the questions her art asked around the ideas of identity, post-colonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society.
8) Helen Keller
An American author, political activist, and lecturer, Helen Keller was the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Her story was famously portrayed in the play and film, The Miracle Worker, which documented how her teacher Anne Sullivan was finally able to develop a language that Helen could understand.
Helen wrote a total of twelve published books, including her spiritual autobiography, My Religion, and was also a member of the Socialist Party in America. She campaigned heavily for women’s rights and other labour rights, and was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
9) Lenin Moreno
One of the most powerful people with a disability to hold public office since FDR, Lenin Moreno was the Vice President of Ecuador from 2007 to 2013, making history and bringing attention to the needs of other Ecuadorians living with disabilities. He was injured in a shooting before getting involved in politics, and was nominated for a Noble Peace Prize for his advocacy during his time as Vice President, in 2012.
10) Sudha Chandran
Sudha Chandran is a famous ‘Bollywood’ dancer and television actress, who lost a leg to infection in 1981 after a car accident. A dancer in the Bharatanatyam form of Indian classical dance, Sudha taught herself how to dance using a prosthetic “Japir foot,” resulting in her becoming one of the most highly acclaimed dancers in the world. A Bollywood film, Mayuri, was also made about her life.
11) Stella Young
Stella was a prominent disability activist, writer and comedian from right here in Victoria, born in Stawell. Stella was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder that causes bones to break easily. At the age of fourteen, she began a life of advocacy for people living with disability, and was an ambassador for Our Watch as well as a member of various boards and councils including Victorian Disability Advisory Council, the Ministerial Advisory Council for the Department of Victorian Communities, the Youth Disability Advocacy Service, and Women with Disabilities Victoria.
Stella was also a two-time state finalist in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival's Raw Comedy competition, and hosted eight seasons of Australia's first disability culture program, No Limits, on Channel 31. A regular contributor to ABC's The Drum since 2011, and a correspondent for the 2012 Paralympics from London, Stella also wrote for Mamamia and The Punch. Sadly she passed away in December 2014.
Want to read some more inspirational stories? Meet the AAA Play Ambassadors, a diverse and passionate group of athletes who haven't let their disability stand in the way of their passion for sport and recreation. https://aaavic.org.au/ambassadors
Learn about some outstanding Australian athletes living with disability. https://aaavic.org.au/5-outstanding-australian-athletes-living-disability