If you are looking for a list of the 30 most famous people with disabilities you have come to the right place.
While it’s a great achievement for any person to perform an extraordinary act, when it’s done by someone with a debilitating disability it redefines the term “awe-inspiring” for me.
As a mom of a child with special needs, I get great comfort, encouragement and inspiration from hearing stories about others, who have prospered despite all odds.
Here are 30 simply amazing stories of famous people with disabilities.
1 – Helen Keller 1880 – 1968
Diagnosis: Blind and Deaf
One of the most inspiring stories of an individual who managed to succeed despite all odds is Helen Keller, who overcame the adversity of being deaf and blind to become one of the leading humanitarians of the 20th century.
Born physically normal Keller lost her sight and hearing at the age of 19 months, leaving her to live in a world that seemed totally isolated.
However through the instruction of a remarkable teacher named Anne Sullivan as a little girl Helen Keller learned to understand and communicate with the world around her.
Keller learned from Sullivan to read and write in Braille and to use the hand signals of the deaf-mute, which she could understand only by touch.
Keller grew up to be a prolific author and campaigned heavily for women’s and workers’ rights, and socialism, as well as many other progressive causes.
Widely honored throughout the world, she founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and traveled to over 39 countries, meeting every US President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson.
She also became friends with many famous figures, including Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain.
Through her amazing work Helen was able to alter the world’s perception of the capabilities of the handicapped and show others how courage, intelligence and dedication can help strength the human spirit to overcome adversity.
2 – Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018
At the age of 21 Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with a rare early-onset slow-progressing form of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) also known as motor-neuron disease.
At the time doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years however he has since lived for more than 40 years with the disease, that has left him unable to walk, talk, breathe easily, swallow or hold his up head without difficulty.
At the time he was told he was not a remarkable college student (he received mediocre grades in middle school).
But despite this assessment, he has become an internationally renowned Physicist, cosmologist, author, professor and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge.
His book A Brief History of Time stayed on the British Sunday Times bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks.
In spite of being wheelchair bound and dependent on a computerized voice system for communication Hawking lived an abundant life with his family (he has three children and three grandchildren) while also traveling and lecturing extensively on theoretical physics.
3 – Nick Vujicic, Born 1982
I have a serious soft spot for Nick as he was born in Australia like me and I discovered him (one of his early lectures specifically) long before he became a world-renowned motivational speaker.
As soon as I heard him speak, even though he was still young at the time, I knew he held the power to positively impact others, especially physically-challenged individuals who may have felt depressed or confronted by their limitations.
Vujicic was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the absence of all four limbs (he does however have two toes on one small foot).
As a child he struggled not only physically but emotionally yet eventually he came to terms with his disability and at the age of seventeen he started his own not-for-profit organization called Life without Limbs.
During secondary school Vujicic was elected school captain and at age twenty one he graduated from Griffith University with a double major in Accounting and Financial Planning.
He now travels as a motivational speaker, is the author of numerous books including Your Life Without Limits and happily married with two children. In his words:
Dream big my friend and never give up.
We all make mistakes but none of them are mistakes. Take one day at a time. Embrace the positive attitudes, perspectives, principles and truths I share, and you too will overcome.
Credit for above photo of Nick Vujicic: Copyright of photos are with respective owners, no copyright infringement intended.
4 – Rick Hoyt Born, 1962
Diagnosis: Cerebral Palsy
Another favorite inspirational person of mine – I first saw the Hoyts on an Oprah show back when I was still a teenager (long before I had any special needs children of my own).
When I saw Rick Hoyt with his father Dick I was instantly spellbound by the love and dedication this father had for his son.
At birth Rick was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy and the doctors were blunt.
They said “forget about Rick, put him away, put him in an institution, he’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life.”
Institutionalizing their child was however never an option for his parents and they decided to raise Rick just like his two brothers.
At the age of 11, Rick was fitted with a computer that enabled him to communicate.
With this communication device, Rick was also able to attend public schools for the first time.
Rick went on to graduate from Boston University in 1993 with a degree in special education and later worked at Boston College in a computer lab helping to develop systems to aid in communication and other tasks for people with disabilities.
Team Hoyt was formed in 1997 after Rick asked his father Dick if they could run in a race together to benefit a lacrosse player at his school who had become paralyzed.
They have since competed in over a thousand endurance events, including marathons, triathlons and Ironman competitions with Dick pushing his son in a custom-made running chair.
They have also run the Boston Marathon 32 times and in 1992 Team Hoyt biked and ran across the United States, completing a full 3,735 miles in 45 days.
This astonishing feat of love and courage was sparked after Rick told his father after their first event “Dad when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.”
Running together became a way to send a message to the world that “everybody should be included in everyday life.”
Such is the power of a parent’s love!
5 – Mary Temple Grandin, Born: 1947
Mary Temple Grandin is not only an American professor at animal science at Colorado State University she is also a best-selling author, autism activist and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior.
In 2010 she was named by Time 100 as one of the one hundred most influential people in the world and is the subject of the award-winning biographical film, Temple Grandin.
She also invented the “hug box”, a device designed to calm those on the autism spectrum.
Her message to the world:
The world needs different kinds of minds to work together.
See the person the label.
Autism is a part of who I am.
I am different, but not less.not
6 – Christy Brown, 1932 –1981
Diagnosis: Cerebral Palsy
Christy Brown was an Irish author, painter and poet who had severe cerebral palsy.
Born in Dublin, he was one of 13 surviving children (out of 22 born) in a Catholic family.
He was severely disabled by cerebral palsy and incapable for years of deliberate movement or speech.
Doctors considered him to be intellectually disabled as well however his mother continued to speak to him, work with him, and try to teach him.
One day, he famously snatched a piece of chalk from his sister with his left foot to make a mark on a slate.
At the time, only his left foot responded to his will and using his foot he was able to communicate for the first time.
He is most famous for his autobiography My Left Foot, which was later made into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name.
7- Franklin Roosevelt, Born 1882-1945
Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States and in 1921 contracted an illness (at the time believed to be poliomyelitis) that left him with total and permanent paralysis from the waist down.
Due to fear of what the public would think the news of his disability was kept secret for numerous years and Roosevelt continued to serve his nation in an honorable and memorable way.
He tried a wide range of therapies, including hydrotherapy and being fitted with iron braces.
In private he used a wheelchair and despite his paralysis, he retained his humor and charisma and was elected President an unprecedented four times.
8 – Robert Hensel, Born 1969
Diagnosis: Spina Bifida
As an international poet and writer, Hensel has never let his disability come in the way of his artistic mind.
"There were many times that my schoolmates would laugh at me and call me names simply because of their lack of understanding of why I was a little different".
He was awarded the title of one of the best poets of the 20th century with over 900 publications worldwide and detains the world record at Guinness and Ripley's for the longest nonstop wheelie in a wheelchair, covering a total distance of 6.178 miles.
Hensel is a leading figure within the disability community, advocating for the right and treatment of all individuals living with disabilities across the world.
9 – Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer, Born 1950-1998
Ruth was a quadriplegic and an American disability rights activist, best known for her autobiography I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, co-authored with Steven B. Kaplan.
Born a healthy baby she was afflicted with a severe bout of encephalitis at the age of five weeks.
At thirteen months, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy resulting from the encephalitis and consequently her control over her entire body, except for her face and digestive system, was severely impaired.
Due to her inability to communicate normally, she was diagnosed as an imbecile at the age of five and as a teenager was sent to an institution for the mentally and physically disabled where she was severely mistreated for eight years.
In 1978 she and some fellow patients were moved into their own apartment and soon after she married and published her autobiography to critical acclaim.
Despite never speaking a word or having the ability to walk or feed herself she changed many people with her words and became a world-renowned disability rights activist.
10 – Ralph Braun, Born 1940-2013
Diagnosis: Muscular Dystrophy
Ralph Braun was the late founder and CEO of the Braun Corporation, which is today one of the leading manufacturers of wheelchairs and accessible vehicles.
At age six Braun was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and doctors told his parents he would never be independent.
Ralph and his parents were however determined to prove them wrong.
In the next few years Braun lost his ability to walk and he sent his mind to engineering the first battery-powered scooter.
During his teen years he created various motorized vehicles to help him get around and by 1991 he had created the first wheelchair accessible minivan.
Named the “Champion of Change” by President Barrack Obama his personal drive to keep him independent evolved into BraunAbility, the leading manufacturer of mobility products across the world.
He passed away at the age of 73 but not before he made a serious impact helping launch the mobility movement.
11- Chris Burke, Born 1956
Diagnosis: Down Syndrome
Chris Burke is an American actor who is best known for his character Charles “Corky” Thatcher on the television series Life Goes On.
When Chris born his parents were told to institutionalize him but instead they decided to raise him at home and nurture his talents.
He was encouraged by his supportive family to follow his dreams of being on TV and Chris became the first person with Down syndrome to star in a weekly television series.
He has since appeared on numerous TV shows and movies and currently serves as the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) Ambassador.
Chris had the faith in his own abilities and the courage to face prejudice as he pursued his dream to become an actor.
12/13/14 – Albert Einstein, Amadeus Mozart and Michelangelo
These three incredible men are all widely believed to have been on the autism spectrum.
Einstein was very intelligent but had difficulty with social interactions and learning in school.
Mozart was an accomplished musician from the age of five and exhibited much of the narrow focus often found in autistic individuals.
Michelangelo, on the other hand, had an inability to form long-term attachments and other eccentricities which are easily explained by a diagnosis of autism.
All three men grew to be known as world-renowned geniuses in the academic and artistic field.
15 – Sir Isaac Newton
According to experts, Newton showed many signs of having Asperger’s Syndrome.
He hardly spoke, had few friends and was so engrossed in his work he often forgot to eat.
If nobody turned up to his lectures, he gave them anyway, talking to an empty room.
He demonstrated an obsessive single-mindedness that is commonly associated with Asperger’s.
Newton is now widely recognized as one of the most influential scientists of all time and a key figure in the scientific revolution.
16 – Terry Fox
Terry ran halfway across Canada with only one leg (and a prosthetic).
His disability affected his ability to run across the second largest country in the world but he did it anyway.
17- Willie Boular
This man from Kansas was blind, mute, and had both legs amputated but he still once built a 46000 brick-sidewalk in less than 8 hours.
18 – Steady Eddie
An Australian comedian and actor with Cerebral palsy who used his disability as the basis for his comedy.
He was rewarded with a Young Australian Achievers Award and has since toured the UK, Canada and USA, releasing a big-selling album and video and winning various awards for his comedic efforts.
19 – Marla Runyan
At the age of nine, Marla developed Stargardt’s Disease, which is a form of macular degeneration that left her legally blind.
Marla Runyan went on to become a three-time national champion in the women’s 5000 meters. She won four gold medals in the 1992 summer Paralympics.
In the 1996 Paralympics, she won silver in the shot put and gold in the Pentathlon.
In 2000 she became the first legally blind Paralympian to compete in the Olympic Games in Sydney.
A year later she co-wrote and published her autobiography ‘No Finish Line: My Life As I See It.’
20 – Marlee Matlin
This Academy Award-winning actress has been deaf since 18 months old due to a genetically malformed cochlea.
Her work in film and television has resulted in four Emmy nominations, one Golden Globe Award and two additional Golden Globe nominations.
She is also a prominent member of the National Association of the Deaf.
21 – Daniel Tammet
Born in 1979 Tammet has written three incredible books based on his personal experience with Asperger Syndrome.
In 2005 a UK documentary called “The Boy with the Incredible Brain” was based on his life.
22/23 – Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder
These men may not have been able to see but by gosh could they sing.
24 – Dr. Janice Brunstrom
She is the only pediatric neurologist in the U.S. who also has Cerebral Palsy, and she is one of the leading scientists in CP research.
She founded the only comprehensive pediatric CP Center in the country and her main cause is correcting common misconceptions about cerebral palsy such as:
Cerebral palsy is hopeless;
Cerebral palsy means low intelligence;
Children with cerebral palsy do not need to stand and physicians cannot do anything about these children's vision problems.
25 – Itzhak Perlman
An Israeli-American conductor, pedagogue and one of the most distinguished violinists of the late 20th century.
Perlman contracted polio at the age of four and today he gets around with the use of a wheelchair or the aid of crutches.
He plays the violin while seated and critics say there is something so transcending about the emotions Itzhak is able to communicate through playing of his music.
26 – Jhamak Ghimire
A poet and writer from Nepal, Jhamak has won many awards for her writing of literature.
Born in 1980 with cerebral palsy, Ghimire's desire led her to learn to read and write.
She went on to become one of the leading and well respected literary figures of Nepal and has also become a symbol of courage to people with disabilities around the world.
27 – Hermann of Reichenau
Also called Herman the Cripple, he was an 11th century scholar, composer, music theorist, mathematician, and astronomer.
Born with a cleft palate, cerebral palsy and also said to have spina bifida, Hermann was crippled by a paralytic disease from early childhood.
At seven he was placed in a monastery by his parents who could no longer look after him.
He eventually grew up to be literate in several languages and a famed religious poet and historian.
28 – Christopher Nolan
This famed Irish author was born with cerebral palsy, after been deprived of oxygen for two hours at birth.
He could only move his head and eyes but his mother believed he could understand what was going on and so used to teach him at home.
ventually they discovered a drug that allowed him to move one muscle in his neck so they attached a special pointer device to his forehead which enabled his mother to help him to type.
He communicated with others solely by moving his eyes, using a signal system.
At fifteen his first book Dam-Burst of Dreams was accepted for publication.
He was later awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letter in the UK and a medal of excellence from the United Nations Society of Writers.
Nolan has never spoken or signed a word in his life, yet his poetry has been compared to that of Joyce, Keats, and Yeats.
28 – Frida Kahlo
As a child Frida suffered from polio and is also believed to have had spina bifida.
When she was a teen she was involved in a near-fatal bus accident that only aggravated her spinal issues and led to severe pain for the rest of her life.
Despite her many physical issues, she still became one of the most famous artists of all time using a specially-made easel that allowed her to paint in bed.
28 – John Nash
John Nash was an American mathematician who suffered from acute paranoid schizophrenia and his life was portrayed in the movie A BEAUTIFUL MIND.
Despite his diagnosis and numerous hospitalizations, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences as a result of his game theory work.
29 – Michael J Fox
Famed actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 29 and partly retired from acting two years later as his symptoms started to worsen.
Although he initially struggled with the diagnosis that did not stop him from creating the Michael J Fox Foundation For Parkinson’s Research and he firmly believes: our challenges don’t define us. Our actions do.
30 – Aaron Fotheringham
Aaron Fotheringham is an extreme wheelchair athlete who became a wheelchair user full-time at the age of 8.
After watching his brother ride in BMX bike at the skate park, he decided to ride his chair there and was instantly hooked.
He eventually joined the Nitro Circus Live tour, an action sports road show that tours the world and his early claims to fame include being able to successfully perform a backflip in a wheelchair at age 14 and a double backflip at age 18.
If you would like to raise a happier and more resilient child with special needs check out the following course: