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15 Famous People You Didn’t Realize Overcame a Disability

Differently abled is the right term for a person overcoming a disability: These celebrities are proof of that.

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Disability today

Disability rights advocates work tirelessly to create a more inclusive world. We’re progressing (albeit slowly) towards a state where everyone will have the same opportunity to engage in all aspects of society to the best of their individual abilities. It’s a striking concept, that in this modern era we’re not more advanced in our inclusion efforts, especially given that 15 percent of the global population (about one billion people) experiences a form of disability, according to The World Bank. That estimation includes these celebrities, who have taken control of their condition and accomplished greatness.

Stephen HawkingDavid Fisher/Shutterstock

Stephen Hawking

At the age of 22, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a motor neuron disease (MND). Confined to a wheelchair, Hawking used a synthetic voice to communicate with the world. “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.”

Kyle Maynardvia

Kyle Maynard

Congenital amputation means being born minus limbs; Kyle Maynard came into the world with no hands or feet but went on to become a mixed martial arts athlete. He continues to defy society’s idea of what a disability looks like. Not only has he received an ESPY award for this athletic prowess, he is the first quadruple amputee to climb Mount Kilimanjaro without the use of prosthetics, according to CNBC. “My parents helped me develop tools to overcome my challenges,” Maynard says in an essay for Option B, an organization offering resilience-building tools. “When I was two, my dad decided that my family would stop helping me eat. He knew that one day I’d live on my own, so I’d have to look after myself. I learned to eat with a prosthetic spoon, and then with a knife and fork. It gave me a huge sense of accomplishment.”

John NashJoao Relvas / Shutterstock

John Nash

Some of the greatest minds of our time live or lived with disability, including mathematician John Nash. His experience living with schizophrenia was well-documented in the award-winning film A Beautiful Mind. According to the New York Times, Nash said his conditioned lessened with age, and without medication. “I emerged from irrational thinking, ultimately, without medicine other than the natural hormonal changes of aging,” he told the newspaper. Check out these 12 easy math tricks you’ll wish you had known all along.

Andrea BocelliJim Smeal / Shutterstock

Andrea Boccelli

Famed Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli is known for his beautiful voice, but what many may not know is that he was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma not long after birth and had limited vision. At the age of 12, he lost his sight completely. “Growing up, every day they told me ‘this is too dangerous’ but I don’t care,” he told The Independent. “Everything is dangerous. To take the car and go out on the highway is also very dangerous or to fly in a helicopter. I like very much to ride horses. I like soccer, I have had a passion for boxing since I was a child although it would be stupid for me to box.” Check out the incredible health benefits of music.

Frida Kahlovia

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, one of the most influential artists of our time, contracted polio at the age of six. This resulted in one of her legs being thinner than the other, according to Disability Horizons. Then, at age 18, she was involved in a horrific trolley accident that left her with a broken spine and pelvis, as well as a pierced abdomen. It was during the year that she was essentially sequestered from the outside world while in a body cast that she took up painting as a way to express her creativity.

Keira Knightley Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock

Keira Knightley

When you consider how many scripts an actor must read, it might seem like the profession would be a turn-off for a person with dyslexia. For film star Keira Knightley, who was diagnosed with dyslexia at age six, she actually used her love of acting to overcome the condition. “Dyslexia is like a wall… it’s very difficult to see over it,” she told the BBC. “I was really lucky because I had acting… it was like a carrot that was being dangled in front of me because I had to be able to read those lines in order to do it.” Make sure you don’t fall for these myths about dyslexia.

Daniel RadcliffeAndrew H Walker / Shutterstock

Daniel Radcliffe

The Harry Potter star has been open about living with what is considered a mild form of dyspraxia, a neurological condition that interferes with motor skills, memory, judgment, mental processing, and other cognitive skills. In a Facebook chat, he said, “Do not let it stop you, It has never held me back, and some of the smartest people I know are people who have learning disabilities. The fact that some things are more of a struggle will only make you more determined, harder working and more imaginative in the solutions you find to problems.”

Ty PenningtonKristina Bumphrey / Shutterstock

Ty Pennington

Best known as the charismatic host of the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Ty Pennington has ADHD. When Child Mind Institute asked him what he would tell his younger self, Pennington said: “Your confidence is not at an extreme high right now, but things are going to change. You’re going to realize that you have an amazing talent of creativity and that you can use your hands, and that’s going to lead to you believing in yourself, and when you believe in yourself, the whole world changes.” Watch for the 12 symptoms of ADHD in adults.

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Howie Mandel

Comedian and television host Howie Mandel was well aware of his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression for years before discussing it publicly. Now he has learned ways to cope with his disability rather than allow it to get the better of him and advocates for others. “If the first thing doesn’t work, there is another alternative, and if that doesn’t work there is another,” he tells the organization Hope to Cope. “People should know there are ways to make their life better. They don’t have to be ashamed or suffer in silence.”

Itzhak PerlmanChristopher Smith / Shutterstock

Itzhak Perlman

Violinist Itzhak Perlman contracted polio as a child, leading to his need for crutches and a motorized scooter, which he uses today. Perlman is a staunch disability rights advocate and supports inclusiveness across the board. In 2016 he canceled a North Carolina performance because of the state’s HB2 law limiting the protections for LGBT people. “I’ve been an advocate of equality for the disabled, and this is just another situation in which this is the subject,” he told NPR. “We are dealing with the equality and dignity of citizens.”

Dan AkroydAmanda Schwab / Shutterstock

Dan Aykroyd

Saturday Night Live alum Dan Aykroyd was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome when he was 12 years old. Additionally, he has Asperger syndrome, although he wasn’t diagnosed until the early 1980s. Interestingly, living with the condition inspired one of his most iconic films. “One of my symptoms included my obsession with ghosts and law enforcement—I carry around a police badge with me, for example, Aykroyd told the Daily Mail. “I became obsessed by Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever. That’s when the idea of my film Ghostbusters was born.”

Danny GloverRob Latour/ Shutterstock

Danny Glover

Veteran actor Danny Glover, who has dyslexia, admits that at one time the condition made him feel he was “unworthy to learn.” He focused on his ability to work well with numbers. “I won’t claim that I didn’t suffer any less with reading or writing, it’s just that I knew I did something well and sometimes you just need just a little inch to feel good about yourself,” he told Ability Magazine. “Honestly, no one probably ever noticed that I did a little better on math than my other subjects. Perhaps education begins with feeling that people really care about you and maybe that’s not part of what I felt.”

Aaron Fotheringhamvia

Aaron Fotheringham

Born with spina bifida which led to him being unable to use his legs, extreme athlete Aaron Fotheringham worked tirelessly to never let anything get in the way of pursuing his dreams. He has won the WCMX World Championships (wheelchair motocross) an impressive four times is known for executing the first “wheelchair flair”/backflip 180. When he isn’t working on his next daredevil move, Fotheringham gives motivational talks to disabled children, showing them that a wheelchair can be “used as a tool, not a restriction.”

Magic JohnsonChelsea Lauren/ Shutterstock

Magic Johnson

Known for being one of the best professional basketball players of our time, Magic Johnson was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. In an effort to catch up to his classmates, the iconic athlete would take summer school, but he never forgot the teasing he received from his classmates. “The looks, the stares, the giggles…I wanted to show everybody that I could do better and also that I could read,” he said in an interview. Johnson not only has five NBA titles, he also holds a gold medal from the 1992 Olympics.

Millie Bobby Brown stranger thingsRob Latour/Shutterstock

Millie Bobby Brown

Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown was born with partial hearing loss. Eventually, she lost all hearing in one ear. In an interview with Variety, she explains why she doesn’t let that stop her from performing. “I just started to sing, and if I sound bad I don’t care, because I’m just doing what I love,” says Brown. “You don’t have to be good at singing. You don’t have to be good at dancing or acting. If you like to do it, if you genuinely enjoy doing it, then do it. No one should stop you.”

Medically reviewed by Oscar H. Cingolani, MD, on November 23, 2019