Disability is often treated as something that should be hidden away, an object of secrets and shame. When it is visible, it’s unfortunately common to see it handled as the source of pity porn; disability is presented as something tragic that is supposed to evoke pity and sorrow.
Here are seven notable people bucking the trend when it comes to disability and visibility — they may be disabled, but it’s not the sum total of who they are, and they’ve got way too much on their plates to have time for pity parties.
1. You might have caught Oscar Pistorious on television this summer, so long as you didn’t blink: this Paralympic athlete is blazingly fast. As a runner, Pistorius likes to focus on training and competing with the best in the field, not on the fact that he has double below-the-knee amputations. He’s fought hard to be included in events designed for nondisabled athletes, only to be turned away initially because his unique prostheses supposedly confer “an unfair advantage.” In 2012, he was a busy man, competing in both the Summer Olympic and Summer Paralympic Games.
2. Marlee Matlin’s whole career is about visibility; this actress and entertainer captivated audiences with Children of a Lesser God and she’s kept up a busy appearance schedule ever since. Oh, yeah, and she happens to be deaf. In media, Matlin raises the visibility of American Sign Language, and she’s also a passionate advocate for fellow deaf and hard of hearing people, pushing for more universally accessible media like captioned videos and materials in alternatives to audio format. But she’s not all serious business; she has a sense of humor about disability and her hearing loss and isn’t afraid to crack jokes now and then.
3. Richard Branson may be ridiculously wealthy and churning out increasingly bizarre and intriguing ideas now, but he barely scraped his way through school, and he’s been open about why. He struggled with dyslexia, calling it his “greatest strength” as a businessman even though it nearly took down his school career. He’s not alone; a number of CEOs actually have learning disabilities like dyslexia, and many credit their success to their disabilities, arguing that they think differently and more innovatively as a result of the way their brains work.
4. Tammy Duckworth ran a fierce political campaign in 2012 against a conservative opponent who wasn’t afraid of taking potshots at her, and she won. This disabled veteran uses both wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs for mobility, and is often seen out and about interacting with constituents and other officials. As a disabled person in a highly public role, she’s a reminder of the large number of Americans living with disabilities today, and she sends a clear signal that being disabled doesn’t stop you from achieving career goals, becoming an outspoken member of the community, or holding public office. She’s in good company; none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt was disabled as well.
5. TV presenter Cerrie Burnell initially attracted a great deal of backlash when she appeared on the children’s show CBeebies, where people complained that her visible disability would upset children. She fought back, refusing to leave the show or conceal her partially-missing arm with a prosthesis, and she prevailed. She said in an interview with The Guardian that her experience was a valuable lesson in the importance of increasing visibility: “By that, I don’t mean talking about disability for hours on end, which is dull for everyone — just get up, get out there and do something that has nothing to do with disability and let people see you.”
6. PC Shecka Conteh is one among a batch of disabled police recruits in Sierra Leone. The nation, which has a very high rate of disability as a result of a brutal civil war, is experimenting with recruiting disabled officers to increase visibility, fight stigma, and help reduce the high unemployment rate for disabled people. They’re starting with desk jobs, but they’re laying the groundwork for being out on the beat, working directly with members of the community and focusing on policing, not their disabilities.
7. Vail Horton probably doesn’t mesh with your idea of the average CEO. For one thing, he likes to ride his skateboard around the office. For another, he has no legs. Horton’s frustrations with medical devices led him to found his own company to improve on available technologies like canes and crutches, and encourages employees to get passionate, involved and active. His successful business is a sharp reply to those who might claim that disabled people can’t live independently, let alone run businesses.
Photo credit: Richard Parmiter
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