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30 Incredible People Who Didn’t Let Their Disabilities Define Them

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By definition, disability is a limitation and a hindrance to one’s life- but not to these incredible people. While disability by nature can be very upsetting and challenging, many disabled people are motivated to drive themselves forward and overcome significant barriers.


From the deaf, blind and mute to quadriplegic surfers, here are 30 awe-inspiring people who didn’t let their disabilities define them.


1. Hellen Keller


Hellen Keller is one of the most inspiring Americans of all time. Born blind, death and mute, Keller would go on and do the seemingly-impossible: live not only a normal life but a great one.

She was the first of her kind to earn a Bachelors in Arts and later became a political activist and best-selling author. She was also one of the founding members of the forward-thinking American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).


2. Stevie Wonder


Stevie Wonder is one of the greatest American musicians of all time not only because his music is excellent but because he composed and performed while blind. The jazz crooner is a legend of popular culture with 30. U.S top ten hits to his name.

The “Superstition” hitmaker continues to perform to this day and serves as a reminder that talent discriminates against nobody.


3. Lenin Moreno


Presidents often get a bad rep because not everyone is going to be open to their policies and visions, but after the Vice President of Ecuador from 2007 to 2013 became a paraplegic following an injury sustained in a shooting, he became a national figure of hope and overcoming adversity.

Lenin Moreno has since gone onto to become President of Ecuador, a significant achievement indeed.


4. Marlee Matlin

Shutterstock/ S_Bukley

Hollywood is finally embracing diversity in the upper echelons of the boardrooms and within the talent pool of actors and actresses, but disability remains an ongoing issue. To this day, many roles that portray disability still go to non-disabled performers.

However, one actress who has enjoyed a sustained spell of success in the industry is the deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who remains the only deaf actress to win an Academy Award for her role in Children of a Lesser God.


5. John Nash


The famed mathematician whose genius spawned the economic hypothesis Game Theory had paranoid schizophrenia during his years as a professor at Princeton University. Nash’s extraordinary career was even brought to life in the Ridley Scott movie, A Beautiful Mind.

While fans of the film will already know of Nash’s struggles, his genius always prevailed, and his work on geometry and partial differential equations remain a constant source of admiration to those in the field of mathematics.


6. Ralph Braun


A wheelchair titan responsible for the first wheelchair accessible minivan (pictured above), Braun’s battle with muscular dystrophy led him to devote his life designing better quality wheelchairs.

Founded in 1963, the Braun Corporation remains the leading wheelchair company in the country. Sadly, Braun passed away in February at the age of 73, but the embers of his legacy continue burning.


7. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Wikipedia/ National Archives and Record Adminstration
Franklin Delano Roosevelt became famous for taking to the radio and addressing the nation in a calming voice during a period when Americans were going through unprecedented suffering owing to the Great Depression. One of only two men to follow in their father’s footsteps and become president, Roosevelt became the 33rd President of the United States when elected in 1933 until his passing in 1945.

However, he hid his disability for many years due to his battle with polio that he contracted after drinking contaminated water at a campground. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only president to be elected four times following the success of his New Deal. But when a ratified 22nd Amendment in 1951 came into play, the presidency was limited to two terms.


8. Frida Kahlo


One of Mexico’s most revered painters of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo’s ambition and talents as a painter could have ended before they had begun when she was injured in a trolley accident as a teenager. While she was never fully paralyzed the condition only worsened as she aged, and coupled with polio she contracted as a child, Kahlo’s adult years were riddled with illness and pain.

But she never let these physical challenged get in the way of her extraordinary talent as an artist. In fact, many of her self portraits were completed in a wheelchair.


9. Stephen Hawking


The British theoretical physicist set a precedent for what can still be achieved when disability threatens to derail a promising career. An Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Hawking’s achievements and his celebrity in later years exceeded his wildest expectations.

Hawking’s near-vegetative state was caused by motor neuron disease, the first symptoms of which began during his studies at Cambridge University. The condition rapidly caught up with Hawking before he completed his studies, and after a severe fall at 21 doctors said that he would be lucky to live longer than three years.


10. Sudha Chandran


One of the world’s most famous Bollywood actresses and dancers suffered an infection spawned from a car accident in 1981 which ultimately culminated in the star losing her leg.

Despite the traumatic ordeal Chandran resumed her career and continued to enjoy great success in the Indian film industry.


11. John Hockenberry


The esteemed Dateline journalist became one of the very first in his profession to openly use a wheelchair following a spinal cord injury sustained during a car crash at 19-years-old.

The acclaimed author and journalist would go on to report all over the world for more than three decades, and his work has been awarded a variety of accolades including an Emmy for Outstanding Live Coverage of a Current News Story.


12. Bethany Hamilton


This rad surfer made headline news after she lost her arm following a shark attack in Hawaii at only 13-years-old. But the horrific ordeal didn’t derail the teen’s spirits- far from it. Three weeks later she was back on her board doing what she loved most.

The inspiring story was even adapted into a film called Soul Surfer.


13. Marla Runyan

Limitless Pursuits

There have been many remarkable female athletes over the years that broke down boundaries and redefined what it meant to be a go-getting woman, but Marla Runyan did that and more when she became the first legally blind American runner to compete at the Olympics.

While she never won an Olympic medal, she is a three-time national champion in the women’s 5000 metres.


14. Ludwig van Beethoven


Along with Mozart, this supreme virtuoso has long been heralded as one of music’s foremost talents, with a range of compositions that have remained in the lexicon of classical music hundreds of years after his passing.

And even though Beethoven lost his hearing at 26 that didn’t derail him from composing music for many more years.


15. Vincent Van Gogh

Shutterstock/Martien van Gaalen

While the legendary painter Vincent Van Gogh was never diagnosed with a physical disability- unless you count his self-inflicted wound to his left ear- his mental health issues saw him admitted to several insane asylums and hospitals.

Now considered a master, Van Gough only sold one painting in his life as his style was scolded for not being realistic enough. Now, the way he picked out light and swirled his patterns is lauded for its inventive and creative visions of his surroundings.


16. Christy Brown

Andrew Whittuck

This critically-acclaimed Irish painter and writer suffered from cerebral palsy for the majority of his life but found a release in his struggle from a rare ability to type and write using only his left foot.

The amazing true story of the artist was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis.


17. Jean-Dominique Bauby


The lauded French journalist Jean-Dominique suffered a stroke in 1995 that saw him unable to move aside from flick his eyelids. The horrifying ordeal is called locked-in-syndrome and saw the 43-year-old only being able to communicate through blinking. Despite this, all his mental functions remained intact.

While he died two years later, he managed to pen an entire book with the aid of a ghostwriter by blinking thanks to the writer meticulously reciting the alphabet. When she reached the appropriate letter, Dominique would blink. The fantastic book was titled Diving Bell and the Butterfly and also got a Hollywood adaptation of the same name. Jean passed away two days after the book’s publication.


18. Albert Einstein


Synonymous with the word “genius”, Albert Einstein suffered from a learning disability that hindered his development as a child.

It wasn’t until the German-born theoretical physicist was 3-years-old that he could speak a single word.


19. John Milton


The famous literary author and poet became blind at the age of 43, but the British writer wasn’t going to let that stop him penning his masterpiece, Paradise Lost.

Milton’s work came during a fraught and fractious political climate, with his most famous work depicting the fragility of man through a biblical exploration of Adam and Eve.


20. Lord Nelson


Arguably the most famous naval officer in military and British history, this esteemed British officer in the Royal Navy is one of greatest commanders of battleships the seas have ever known.

His natural leadership skills, intelligence and bravery, were applauded and revered, and despite losing arms and one eye in combat, he continued to lead the British Empire to victories in many crucial battles until he succumbed to his death in 1805.


21. Christopher Reeve


Famed for his role as Superman, Christopher Reeve’s (left) life would change forever following a severe horse riding accident that saw him become a quadriplegic in 1995. Best friend Robin Williams was by his side after he developed quadriplegia and was the first person who made him laugh in hospital.

Despite this setback, Reeve’s career continued until he passed away in 2002 while co-directing Everyone’s Hero.


22. Nick Vujicic


One of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic’s inspirations, Nick Vujicic was born without arms or legs but taught himself through sheer perseverance how to do a range of things most of us still can’t do such as skateboarding and surfing.

The Australian- raised motivational speaker and winner of the Australian Young Citizen Award now tours around the world sharing his story and offering hope to all of us that anything is possible.


23. Mary Ann Bevan


Named the ‘World’s Most Ugliest Woman’, Mary Ann Bevan’s confidence was never going to be high. Shockingly, Mary’s condition only came about in her 30s, and until then, she had lived a happily married life until an abnormal facial growth developed.

The condition, known as acromegaly, produced an excessive amount of growth hormones, and her facial features became enlarged. If things couldn’t get any worse, Mary Ann’s husband died in 1914, and with no income to support her four children, she entered an “ugliest woman” competition. Winning the contest, she received a cash prize and a modest income as a sideshow performer until her death in 1933.


24.  Mademoiselle Gabrielle


Acts with missing limbs were nothing new in circuses, but Mademoiselle Gabrielle’s lithe posture and clear-to-see beauty made her stand out from the rest. As well as being highly independent and charming, she also married three times.

Born in Switzerland, Gabrielle was performing in Paris by the age of 16 after recognizing the possibilities that came with her act. A typical show of hers included juggling and everyday things people wouldn’t often associate someone without legs doing.

After her popularity in Europe, Gabrielle moved to America and worked for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus before switching to the more coveted and up-market vaudeville circuit. The star continued performing well into her 40s, though it is unknown when she passed away.


25. Josephine Clofullia


Born in a small Swiss village in 1831, Josephine Clofullia- who would later be known as The Bearded Woman of Geneva- was dappled in fur the moment she was born and by age 2, experienced significant beard growth. Yet local doctors were unable to come up with a suitable prognosis and suggested her parents take her to Geneva for treatment, which proved unsuccessful.

However, when Josephine went to boarding school in her native Switzerland, she realized the lucrative market that existed for people with her condition after attracting large crowds in the playground.

Hearing her stories, her father soon acted as her agent and took Josephine around Europe where she found significant fame. In one case, she received diamonds from Napoleon III as her beard was modeled in a similar style to his. The rest of her career took place in America where she performed at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.


26. Sarah Bernhardt


Most actors have heard the words “Break a leg” before going on stage. But for the French actress Sarah Bernhardt she had to have her leg amputated following a severe knee injury of an altogether different kind.

Despite the trauma, the performer continued to appear on stage until her passing and has gone down as one of Europe’s finest actresses.


27. Tanni Grey-Thompson


The British Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson was born with spina bifida, a congenital disability causing complete closing of the backbone and membranes encompassing the spinal cord.

Perhaps best known in her native UK for her haul of gold medals at various Paralympics, Thompson remains a constant source of celebration to not only disabled athletes but anyone overcoming life-changing obstacles.


28.  Isaac W. Sprague


Billed as ‘The Living Human Skeleton,’ Isaac W. Sprague experienced rapid weight loss when he was 12, and historians later determined that he had suffered from progressive muscular atrophy, which ultimately led to his death in 1887. Because of his life-altering condition, Sprague had to give up his job as a cobbler and after a period of unemployment, a circus boss cast him as a sideshow performer.

His instant popularity with the audience led the famous P.T. Barnum to sign him as a client, who he billed at Barnum’s Museum as ‘The Living Human Skeleton.’


29. Ray Charles 

Shutterstock/ Mark Reinstein

Ray Charles Robinson was one of the world’s most beloved jazz musicians, but his road to superstardom seemed unlikely to succeed. At just 7-years-old, Charles went blind following his glaucoma diagnosis three years prior.

However, Charles’s love for music and his ability to play the piano would soon be spotted by talent scouts in his native Harlem, and it wasn’t long before “Brother Ray” became “The Genius.” The jazz crooner would sell millions of albums worldwide and perform in the most prestigious arenas around the globe.


30. Francisco de Goya


This famous Spanish painter is considered the most prominent romantic painter of late 18th and early 19th centuries despite ultimately going death at 46.

Of course, painting is a visual medium, but to overcome such an ordeal is still impressive, and it didn’t deter Goya from producing some of the most prominent works of the 19th century.

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