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Disabilities transcend all social and economic classes. People from every walk of life have these conditions, including those that are household names. This article delves into famous people with disabilities (by category and era)—sharing insights into how they overcome related challenges and how their transparency inspires fans and followers to do the same.
We also examine how some of these conditions are known as invisible disabilities and the profound impact they can have on those who have them. Shining a light on these public personas also illustrates the overwhelming need for physical and digital accessibility in our society.
Famous People with Dyslexia
Here we profile four famous people, including celebrities with dyslexia, who made it to the top of their respective fields. These are just a few examples of famous people with learning disabilities, underscoring how widespread these conditions are. Did you know that over 65 million Americans have learning and attention challenges?
Octavia Spencer (Actress)
This Oscar-winning actress recognized her reading challenges as a small child growing up in Alabama. Reading aloud was especially problematic and “paralyzing” with other kids listening. Fortunately, she had a supportive mother and school that helped her realize her strengths and what set her apart from her peers. As a result, she’s now a massive star on the world stage who has written two books, despite her learning challenges.
Cher (Entertainer, Actress)
Cher is an award-winning, global superstar whose career spans seven decades. But, like many kids in past generations when medical science was less advanced, Cher wasn’t aware of her dyslexia until her son had similar learning difficulties, and tests revealed it was a hereditary trait.
Anderson Cooper (Journalist)
One of the most recognized news personas, Anderson has six Emmy awards, which never seemed possible when he was a young boy struggling to read. Finally, educators recognized he was an intelligent child, and a reading specialist was the catalyst for his subsequent progress.
Richard Branson (Entrepreneur, Investor, and Founder of Virgin Group)
This billionaire entrepreneur claims his childhood dyslexia helped him think with greater agility, which became advantageous in his career pursuits. He strives to help younger generations understand how this condition can help them think outside the usual parameters and succeed at high levels.
Famous People with Speech Impediments
Speech impediments can have a crippling effect on people, particularly in the formative years. It’s hard enough to be a kid and face the usual growing pains of youth, but a condition like stuttering can make it much more challenging.
Tiger Woods (Stutter)
Tiger Woods needs no introduction. Next to Jack Nicklaus, he’s the world’s most successful professional golfer. Yet, he stuttered most of his life and recounted how frightening it was to speak publicly in school. But, with robust parental support, Tiger persevered through hard work and sheer determination.
Joe Biden (Stutter)
President Joe Biden has always been a stutterer. Even though he never had clinical help, the nuns in his Catholic school taught him to apply rhythm to his speaking—which explains why he immersed himself in the poetry of Emerson and Yeats. As the leader of the free world, he’s living proof of what belief, support, and ambition can do for someone with a disability.
Michael Phelps (Lisp)
Winning 38 Olympic medals, including 23 gold medals, is monumental. Especially for Michael Phelps, who suffered from a lisp in childhood. He found solace in swimming, which helped him escape being judged and bullied by his peers.
James Earl Jones (Stutter)
Even the famously commanding voice of Darth Vader had a bumpy road to success. James Earl Jones’s early bouts with stuttering were so severe he rarely spoke at all and primarily only to family members. Nevertheless, it’s a testament to his perseverance that this screen legend, also Mufasa of Lion King fame, is most famous for his distinct, authoritative voice.
Historical Figures with Disabilities
Disabilities have been around as long as humans themselves. But unfortunately, due to less advanced medical and societal awareness—and a lack of physical and digital accessibility—these historical figures faced even slimmer odds of success in their respective eras.
Albert Einstein (Physicist)
This Nobel Prize-winning physicist is so famous that his name is synonymous with genius. So, it’s hard to believe he had dyslexia. And even though his educators saw his propensity for math, they focused more on his weak speaking and verbal skills. As a result, his teachers thought he would amount to nothing.
Pablo Picasso (Painter, Artist)
Picasso’s art was a sea change for how the world perceives art. His childhood struggles with letters and numbers played a significant role in cubism. Critics and fans saw the artist’s rearranging of common elements as artistically visionary. But Picasso also revealed how his condition gave him a distinct perspective that changed the art world.
Perhaps the most famous abolitionist, Tubman courageously helped fellow black people flee slavery through the Underground Railway. Tubman contracted epilepsy at 14, resulting from an enslaver striking her head. Although she endured seizures and extreme fatigue, nothing stopped her from saving and rescuing people, putting herself at significant risk. Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson as the face of the $20 bill by 2030.
Of all the famous people with special needs, Helen Keller is the most notable for breaking down barriers. As the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, she embraced and excelled at many subsequent endeavors. She was a lifelong advocate for people with disabilities, an author, and helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.
Invisible Disabilities: Much More Than Meets the Eye
Invisible disabilities include fatigue, pain, cognitive dysfunctions, mental disorders, hearing and eyesight impairments, and many learning disabilities we cover in this article.
Sadly, this invisibility can cause misunderstandings, false perceptions, and misguided judgments. For example, people often assume a person can or can’t do something based on their appearance. This faulty judgment can be frustrating for those who may look incapable but are perfectly capable and those who appear capable but aren’t.
These misconceptions can be especially harsh for people with mental disabilities. They’ve been unfairly scrutinized and stigmatized for decades, leading to public discrimination. Nonetheless, recent awareness has increased our understanding and empathy for people with these conditions. This raised awareness and better medical care and outreach are changing how we view mental disabilities.
Raising Awareness: The Celebrity Effect
Awareness often leads to empathy and encourages a public conversation about physical or mental disabilities. In addition, celebrities going public with their conditions can help inspire other successful people with disabilities. Consider that, for example, U2 frontman Bono has consistently worn rose-tinted glasses.
After a bike accident in 2014, he revealed the glasses helped him with glaucoma, a classic case of an invisible disability. Bono wears these glasses to reduce the haze around things in his field of vision. Yet, when asked why he didn’t come out about his eye condition earlier, he admitted fearing it would diminish his star power.
Bono feared that a negative stigma about disabilities would change his fans’ perception of his ability to perform. In other words, people hide their disabilities for various societal reasons, and their condition becomes invisible to everyone else. And though it’s hard to measure how much his admission raised awareness, it likely positively affected most readers and fans.
Other notable celebrities have opened up about their mental disabilities, encouraging more people to follow suit. For example, in Bruce Springsteen’s highly praised autobiography, “Born To Run,” he speaks candidly about his father’s manic depression and bipolar challenges, which often had a crippling effect on his childhood. In addition, Lady Gaga, Chris Evans, Kendrick Lamar, Prince Harry, and Chrissy Teigen have also been transparent about their struggles with fibromyalgia, social anxiety, depression, emotional shutdown, and postpartum depression (PPD).
4 Key Takeaways: What Did We Learn?
What do celebrities with disabilities teach us in the broader context? We break down key takeaways below:
1. Having a disability doesn’t mean you’re not able
If the people profiled in this paper teach us anything, those with disabilities are capable of anything. They become presidents, world-class athletes, award-winning actors, legendary musicians, and more.
2. We should always consider invisible disabilities
Many disabilities, especially those related to the mind, are invisible to the naked eye. Therefore, as fellow citizens, it’s incumbent on all of us to reserve judgment based on someone’s appearance.
3. Everybody needs a helping hand
Most of the famous people profiled in this article had crucial support to overcome their conditions. This is especially true of those from younger generations who’ve grown up in a more accessible world. The lesson? Providing physical accessibility (e.g., curb cuts, accessible restrooms) and digital accessibility (e.g., assistive technology) levels the playing field for everyone. In addition, society must continue making strides for people with learning disabilities in the educational arena. Many of these measures end up helping the entire population, not just people with disabilities.
4. It starts with raising awareness
Famous people undoubtedly impact societal trends. Public awareness rises sharply as more famous personalities with disabilities come out about their various conditions. And with increased awareness comes more pressure on governing bodies to create and enforce measures that support people with all forms of mental and physical disability.
UserWay: Digital Accessibility for Every Citizen
Nobody is immune to disabilities, regardless of their background. UserWay’s AI tech tools can help you reach web accessibility, embrace inclusivity, and protect you concerning ADA compliance. All people should have an equal opportunity to use the web to its full extent. Our tools can help you do your part.
Talk to a UserWay representative today.
How are Disabilities Defined?
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an individual with a disability:
- Has a condition that significantly restricts daily activities
- Has a record of such an impairment
- Considered someone with this kind of condition
The ADA also covers intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
How Can a Company Welcome People with Disabilities?
- Take every opportunity to digitally and physically communicate measures that support inclusivity (including digital questionnaires).
- Consider partnering with a third-party provider to implement AI accessibility tools on your website.
- Ensure you provide all necessary physical access (e.g., curb cuts, entryways, wheelchair accessible restrooms, etc.).
- Make accessibility an integral part of your company mission from the top down.
What is Ableism?
Ableism inaccurately assumes that people with disabilities are of lesser value than those without disabilities. It’s a highly-flawed bias that can lead to discrimination and create barriers for people with disabilities.
How is Web Accessibility Defined?
Web accessibility describes web content, look and feel variables, and UX strategies that accommodate all end users, regardless of their physical or mental abilities. Assistive technology is essential for achieving digital accessibility to accommodate the full range of hearing-related, eye-related, and cognition-related disabilities.