7 Disabled People Making History Through Visibility

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.

Related posts:

Obama and Disability Policy: More Action Needed on Core Issues

Guide to Rights Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Russia’s HIV-Positive Beauty Queen Faces Stigma

Photo credit: Richard Parmiter


Connie T.
Past Member 6 years ago

A disability doesn't make you less of a human - it makes you more of one.

Allan Yorkowitz
.6 years ago

How horrible is it that Eunice Kennedy is given no credit for these people to have been given no recognition in order for these people to compete.

Patricia G.
Patricia Gal6 years ago

It's shameful how "disabled" individuals have been and still plagued with the word.

Jane Warren
Jane Warren6 years ago

thnx for this

Ana Passos
Past Member 6 years ago


Lynn Squance
Lynn S6 years ago

From the age of 3, my mother's stepfather was paralysed from the waist down as a result of polio. But that didn't stop him from a career in advertising or from his favourite past time --- fishing. He died in his 70s. One of my cousins was a hydrocephalic baby who was not expected to live more than a day or two. With shunts inserted to drain the fluid away from her brain, she defied all the odds. Because of this, she had significant learning challenges but eventually she graduated highschool and then went on to become a practical nurse. She died of breast cancer when she was 41.

When I think of my grandfather and my cousin, I don't think of them as being disabled as much as I think of them as being other abled. I sometimes think it is we, what society calls the ablebodied, that are truly disabled because too often we don't see what can be done.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra6 years ago

Thank you s.e. smith, for Sharing this!

paul m.
paul m6 years ago

Nice one.....

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal6 years ago

If only we could celebrate our humanity and they would not be labeled as 'differences.'

Maureen Leibich
Maureen Leibich6 years ago

janet T--I have to disagree with you. I have a daughter who is dyslexic, and she was handicapped all through school. I had to fight with the school district for three years to get them to give her the special training she needed--and that they were mandated by law to give her. You see nothing wrong with the word retarded. Neither do I. But neither do I see anything wrong with the word handicapped. I consider myself handicapped because I have a profound hearing loss and COPD. Yet I still work part time, although I am in my 70s.