12 Famous Disabled People Who Prove That Being Disabled Is Anything But Limiting
In a recent Ted Talk, activist Stella Young spoke out convincingly against what she calls the “inspiration porn” lens through which disabled people are commonly seen. Young, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, told of how she was often commended simply for having a disability, as opposed to having actually accomplished anything. While Western society appears to admire disabled people, it actually treats them not as humans but as “objects of inspiration” that exist solely to motivate able-bodied people.
“Admire me for what I do — for writing well, raising decent kids or having a lovely garden,” writes Ellen Painter Dollar, who also has OI. “But don't admire me just for existing, just because I live a mostly unremarkable life with scars and a limp and a history of dozens of broken bones. Admiration of this sort is really just pity in disguise.”
In honor of Disability Awareness Day, we wanted to compile a list of famous disabled people whose actions deserve our praise. But let’s be clear: These individuals are worthy of respect not because they happened to have been born with a disability, but because of what they’ve contributed to the world. They’ve done things of which anybody — able-bodied or not — would have reason to be proud.
Kahlo became the first Mexican artist to have her work purchased by a major international museum when the Louvre bought her painting, The Frame, in 1939. Her work is noted for its celebration of both indigenous Mexican culture and the female body, as well as its melancholic depiction of solitude and loneliness. Her many self-portraits led one admirer to proclaim that she “anticipated the era of the selfie.” She had polio from the age of six and was severely, permanently disabled by a bus accident 12 years later.
Signed to his first record label at just 11 years old, this blind singer and songwriter is an American legend. He's recorded more than 30 U.S. top ten hits, including “Superstition,” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” (He's also made many heart-warming appearances on Sesame Street.)
Hawking’s contribution to our understanding of how the world around us works can’t be overstated. He’s made landmark discoveries regarding the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, black holes and the theory of relativity, and is generally regarded to as the most brilliant physicist since Albert Einstein. He’s also a best-selling author and has a really good sense of humor, as demonstrated in the clip below. Hawking has Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Ludwig van Beethoven
How timeless is Beethoven’s music? Well, his Symphony No. 5 in C minor, commonly known as the Fifth Symphony, is still being covered 200 years after it was written, and his city of birth has been holding a festival in his honor for almost as long, so pretty timeless. He gave his first public performance at the age of eight, and is generally regarded as one of the greatest classical musicians of all time. He became deaf around the age of 30 and composed much of his catalogue without being able to hear it.
Disabled characters in movies and TV — to the extent that they even appear — are often treated more as plot devices than actual characters. While it would have been easy for the Walt Jr. character in Breaking Bad to embody the kind “inspiration porn” about which Young spoke, Mitte made sure that wasn’t the case. His portrayal of the cerebral palsy-stricken son of Walter White was psychologically complex, with his own set of motivations, incentives, and beliefs that had nothing to do with his disability. Mitte — the actor — suffers from mild cerebral palsy himself.
Generally one of the most impressive people ever, Helen Keller was the first deaf and blind person to earn a college degree. (If you haven't seen it, the film The Miracle Worker depicts how her teacher Anne Sullivan developed a language for Keller to understand, and is truly amazing.) Once Keller was given the ability to express herself, she never wasted it: She published 12 books, and campaigned for women’s rights and labor rights her entire life.
Frequently named by historians as one of the greatest American presidents ever, FDR can take partial credit for both ending the Great Depression and defeating Nazi Germany. He also fundamentally transformed and expanded the role of government in America and laid the ideological groundwork for a generation of liberals. He had polio and was paralyzed from the waist down.
Hobbs is a Los Angeles-based artist who builds structures, usually some sort of robot or creature, out of assorted junk. He's constructed, among other things, a (non-functional) robot from old car parts lying around his front yard and a dinosaur-looking piece called "Cinemasaurus Rex" from discarded film reels. His latest piece, 'Maus Man,' is a Transformers-esque behemoth that he timed for the release of the latest 'Transformers' film; judging from the photos, Hobbs' creation looks much more impressive than the film itself. He's paralyzed from the waist down.
Wiltshire draws enormous, meticulously detailed cityscapes using only a graphic pen and high-quality paper. They're impressive pieces of art in their own right, but they're all the more remarkable given that Wiltshire works entirely from memory. A London native, Wiltshire once drew an 18-foot panoramic image of New York City after gazing at the landscape for only 20 minutes during a helicopter ride. His largest ever illustration was a 52-foot drawing of Tokyo — again, completed entirely from memory after a short helicopter ride. Wiltshire is autistic.
Longstaff paints similar things as Thomas Kinkade — you know, deer in the woods, snow-covered bridges, and so forth — but unlike Kinkade, Longstaff's paintings are actually good. A former pig farmer, Longstaff lives in England, and his art has been reprinted on Christmas cards and calendars — and he paints all of it using only his right foot. He was born without the use of his arms due to his mother's use of thalidomide to combat morning sickness.
Sudha Chandran might not be well-known in America, but she's definitely an amazing person. A famous dancer and actress in India, Chandran lost one of her legs in 1981 in a car accident. But she didn't let that stop her: Chandran used a prosthetic leg to allow her to dance — and went on to become one of the most highly-acclaimed dancers in the world.
As we mentioned above, Stella Young is famous for her TED Talk urging against "inspiration porn," which is truly worth watching. The Australian activist is also a celebrated comedian and journalist.