Einstein_by_gabor5555Casting around newspapers and magazines it can sometimes seem as though disabled people were ‘invented’ or at least ‘discovered’ sometime around the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. Who before then ever heard of a disabled person that defined a field as competitive as sport? Who ever heard of a disabled person that ever left such a mark on history?

Adapted from Able Magazine, Issue #107, September/October 2013. Words: Tom Jamison

Although the way that disabled people are represented and their increasing profile in popular culture might make us think that we’ve only just unearthed the talents of a hitherto undiscovered talent pool, we’d be wrong. The broad field of human endeavour has had its fair share of disabled people that have helped to shape the world we live in; among them Presidents and Prime Ministers, scientists and entertainers.

Aside from listing the great and the good there are a few fundamental questions that need to be asked if such figures are to have a positive legacy in the lives of disabled people. In studying each figure we should try to understand how much disability contributed to the great moments they were involved in. Is it true that in some cases, decisive moments in history can be traced directly back to disability? Does the negative side of disability encourage extraordinary qualities and gifts – problem solving, resolve or creativity?

Search around pen portraits of great historical figures and you’ll come across all manner of ‘boy makes good’ stories concerning disability. The likelihood is that some of these tales are slightly exaggerated or inaccurate or otherwise represent opinions that were formed during times that were appreciably less enlightened than our own – pre 2008.

Is it really true that the genius Albert Einstein had a learning disability or is it more likely that he just learnt in a completely different way to those that went before him and thus by conventional measures, did not appear to be learning ‘properly’? Anecdotal evidence that he didn’t say a word until he was four years old is often held up as proof, when in fact this isn’t even that unusual, let alone constituting a learning disability.

Other figures that have been labelled as having learning disabilities include Sir Winston Churchill, George Washington, Woodrow Wilson and Walt Disney. I’d like to say that it made no difference to their lives – but neither I, nor anyone else knows that for a fact. Just because in all of these cases, the people involved had positive outcomes and have gone down in history does not qualify the statement that it was or was not, because of their disability. Is it conceivable that the way this group of greats actually processed their thoughts contributed to coming up with incredible new ways of looking at the world – so much so, that they changed it?

Churchill’s speeches are often a twist of words, seemingly at odds with each other, that only work because of their simple lyricism: “Owed to so few, by so many,” for example. Were such stirring statements a result of dyslexia and the different way that dyslexics think about and view words? Perhaps the only point this example clears up is that ‘learning disability’ does not necessarily describe a deficiency of the mind.

Physical disabilities are easier to define but equally problematic to attach an influence to. President Franklin Roosevelt served three terms in the White House, guiding the US through the Second World War. The fact that he had survived polio but was a wheelchair user must have impacted his life and therefore influenced his leadership.

When Roosevelt was elected in 1933 it was an age when television wasn’t available to all. It is entirely possible that many millions of Americans didn’t know that he was disabled at all. It may not have occurred to them that it was a coincidence that in lots of photographs he happens to be sat down.

Was he a more feeling politician, able to see that people needed an opportunity to chase their dreams of a better life? Could anyone that hadn’t struggled against the odds acted with such deep empathy?

Some of the historical figures listed here defied their disability whilst to others it could well have been there inspiration. The message is, perhaps, to use our gifts and capabilities (however unusual) to the full and make our mark.

Winston_Churchill_cph.3a49758Winston Churchill
It is undeniable whilst listening to his speeches, that Churchill had a speech impediment, although the precise details remain something of a mystery with experts torn between lisp and stutter. There is a story that that a masseuse identified an unusual ligament that she diagnosed as holding his tongue from its full range of movement and indeed when he was on the run from his captors during the Boer War, wanted posters contained details of a man who occasionally made a rattling noise in his throat.

Churchill is also said to have ‘overcome’ dyslexia (although this is challenged by some biographers). His stirring style of language is certainly unusual and Churchill himself offered that: “I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

Albert_Einstein_HeadAlbert Einstein
Learning difficulty
It is difficult to prove whether Einstein had a genuine learning disability. It has been suggested that he didn’t speak until he was four years old and that he avoided the company of other children and continued to displaying signs of dyslexia throughout his life. Having said all that, he went on to graduate as a professor of Mathematics and Physics and become arguably the most significant scientist of the twentieth century.


John F. Kennedy
Addison’s disease
Addison’s disease is an autoimmune condition that can cause abdominal pain and general weakness among other more severe symptoms that can culminate in coma. Kennedy controlled his condition with a regimen of steroids and other drugs and wore a girdle to support his lower back. Despite all of this he still managed to distinguish himself in the Second World War saving the lives of several of his crewmates when his gunboat was sunk.

The extent of Kennedy’s condition only began to come to light after his election in 1960

President_Woodrow_WilsonWoodrow Wilson
Learning disability
Apparently Wilson did not learn the alphabet until he was nine years old and only learnt to read at the age of 12. This can either be attributed to poor education or a learning disability. Wilson also lived with very poor health throughout his life. He experienced a stroke in 1896 that severely weakened his right arm and side and he lost the sight of his left eye suddenly in 1906. Nevertheless he was elected to office in 1913 although the stress is thought to be the source of severe headaches, double vision and suggestions of a weak heart (probably uncontrolled hypertension).
In 1919 he had another significant stroke that was hidden from his colleagues allowing him to continue to serve until 1921.

His term is remembered for its progressive reforms that include the anti child labour movement as well as support for women’s suffrage and ‘fair dealings’ for African Americans. He personally supervised America’s armistice negotiations at the end of the First World War and was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the League of Nations.

C_Reeve_in_Marriage_of_Figaro_Opening_night_1985Christopher Reeve
Spinal injury
Reeve was a renowned actor, director and producer who achieved mega-stardom after his portrayal of Superman. He became a quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident in 1995 and for the rest of his life campaigned vigorously for people with spinal cord injuries and for further human embryonic stem cell research.

He helped to raise the profile of disability issues to an extent that eclipses his many achievements in the field of entertainment.

Thomas_Edison2-cropThomas Edison
Learning disability, Deaf
To this day no one inventor has been nearly as prolific as Edison who filed over a thousand patents in the USA, among them, one that outlined the electric lightbulb. Edison is yet another figure whose different learning style had him labelled by his teacher as having an “addled” brain having ran out of patience with his pupil’s relentless questioning.

Edison also began to go deaf, probably as a result of ear infections and a bout of scarlet fever during childhood. It is said that he had raised money for an operation that might have cured him but had second thoughts claiming that he “would have difficulty re-learning how to channel his thinking in an ever more noisy world.”

Roosevelt riding a mooseFranklin D.Roosevelt
FDR, as Roosevelt is also known, is one of the great presidents and his policies defined America for most of the twentieth century. His New Deal coalition helped to pull the US out of the economic turmoil of the 1930’s.

Roosevelt had contracted polio whilst on vacation and before his presidency. The condition left him paralysed from the waist down though he never gave up hope of a cure, trying many and varied therapies.

He actually managed to convince people that he was indeed getting better – part of this was due to learning to walk a very short distance in metal leg braces. Care was taken to protect his public image to the extent that only two photos are known to exist of FDR in his wheelchair.

He is the only US President to have served for more than two terms.

Helen KellerHelen Keller
Blind and Deaf
Keller was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She became not only a famous author but also an outspoken political activist and lecturer and specifically an advocate for the rights of disabled people.

Her birthday (27 June) is commemorated in the US as Helen Keller Day.

John-miltonJohn Milton
Milton was a poet as well as a political commentator and is chiefly remembered for his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’. England was in political turmoil at the time and Milton had spoken out against King Charles I.

Having had sight problems for much of his life, he went blind quite suddenly during the composition of Paradise Lost, leaving some to suggest that it was a Divine punishment for speaking against the King.

Milton decided to dedicate himself to helping people gain a deeper perspective of God through reading Paradise Lost and set to work dictating it verse by verse to his wife.

Lord_Byron_coloured_drawingLord Byron
Talipes, Club foot, Bi-polar
Byron was a leading figure of the romantic poets. He was also a notorious playboy who seemed to have no comprehension of rules or boundaries, giving credence to the suspicion that he might have had bi-polar disorder. As well as this he was born with a deformed right foot that modern medical experts have suggested might have been the result of either infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis) or dysplasia, where the bones don’t form properly. In any case it didn’t stop him travelling to Greece (to fight against the Ottoman Empire) where he is still regarded as a hero.

Physicist_Stephen_Hawking_in_Zero_Gravity_NASAStephen Hawking
Physicist, Stephen Hawking is a renowned author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge. His most influential research suggests that black holes emit radiation, (now) called Hawking radiation.

When Hawking was 21 he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) a motor neurone disease that has caused his muscles to deteriorate to the point where he needs full assistance

Ludwig_van_BeethovenLudwig van Beethoven
Beethoven remains one of the greatest and most influential composers in history. He is most revered for the nine symphonies he composed even though in the last 10 years of his life he was almost completely deaf. The ninth symphony, arguably his best and one of the most recognisable pieces of music in the world, was produced in this period.

SarahBernhardt1880Sarah Berhardt
Although Berhardt made her name in the French theatre she was soon in demand across Europe and in America becoming a silent movie star as well. At the time she was referred to as the ‘most famous actress in the world’ and was better known by her nickname, ‘The Divine Sarah”.

In an unlikely accident, she injured her knee while performing on stage in La Tosca. Her leg never healed and gangrene set in necessitating amputation. She continued to act using a prosthetic leg – few people ever noticed.

Harold_Lloyd_in_the_Milky_WayHarold Lloyd
One of the silent film era’s most popular stars, Harold Lloyd was famed for his incredible stunts. His films very often included ‘thrill sequences’ such as the one in the movie, ‘Safety Last’, where Lloyd hangs precariously from the hands of a town clock.

It was highly ironic that Lloyd lost a part of his right hand whilst having publicity photos taken. He was handed a fake bomb that turned out to be rigged with a small theatrical explosive charge.

Lloyd continued to act and do stunts using a prosthetic glove device.

Rear-Admiral_Sir_Horatio_Nelson,_1758–1805Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson
Blind and amputee
Britain’s greatest naval warrior was injured several times during his career, famously losing an eye and his right arm. Despite his impairments he became a national hero in the Napoleonic Wars. His most notable achievement was victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 whereupon he was shot dead by a French sniper. He was afforded a State funeral.

douglasBader2_2346376bDouglas Bader
As a young pilot, Bader lost both his legs in a flying accident. At the outbreak of the Second World War he had to genuinely plead to be reinstated as an RAF pilot but Bader soon climbed the ranks becoming a Group Captain and winning the DSO and Bar and the DFC and Bar before being shot down over France. Despite having prosthetic legs, Bader escaped from PWO camps until he was moved to the notorious Colditz, where he was incarcerated until the end of the war.