Inspirational & Famous People with Developmental Disabilities (Part 1)

Mar 15, 2011
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March is National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. American society has come a long, long way in its treatment of people with developmental disabilities, yet when some parents hear that type of diagnosis, their heart might fall. They might hear ignorance from uninformed people that could make them despair. But there a so very many people with developmental disabilities who have gone on in life to become extremely well-recognized, very accomplished, well-respected and famous. This is part one of a series of people who you will recognize, all of which were diagnosed with varying types of developmental disabilities.

New York State OPWDD explained, “Developmental disabilities are a variety of conditions that become apparent during childhood and cause mental or physical limitation. These conditions include autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, mental retardation, and other neurological impairments.”

As a parent, when your child is labeled with a learning disability, or as the CDC calls an “intellectual disability,” the outlook may “feel” a bit depressing. But take heart! From entertaining us, to making our world a much better place, all of these individuals were characterized as having a “learning disability.”

Famous comedians Jay Leno and Whoopi Goldberg suffer from dyslexia and were labeled as having a learning disability, but it didn’t hold them back in life. Other famous actors and actress with a learning disability include: Suzanne Somers the “dumb blonde” on Three’s Company, and Cher who became a successful singer, actress and entertainer. Rocky star Sylvestor Stallone who is a multi-millionaire and famous actor who didn’t give up after being labeled as having a learning disability. The Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner won critical acclaim for her a science-fiction TV series and also won Emmy, 1976-1978, as Best Actress. Famous actor, Golden Globe and Academy Award winner Tom Cruise had a reading disability – his learning disability didn’t hold him back from fame or fortune.

Other people who became wildly famous despite having a learning disability include:

  • Walt Disney the famous cartoonist, winner of 29 Oscars, creator of Mickey Mouse, and entrepreneur who opened Disneyland in 1955.
  • Albert Einstein who is considered one of the greatest scientists, and minds, of all time.
  • The 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower had a learning disability.
  • You know Ford vehicles? Well Henry Ford had a learning disability but he established Ford Motor Company which helped revolutionize the American automobile industry.
  • Third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who also helped write the Declaration of Independence was said to have many learning disabilities. It certainly didn’t stop him.
  • Bruce Jenner an Olympic Decathlon champion was diagnosed as dyslexic, a learning disability, yet he was a a 1960 Olympic gold medal winner.
  • Basketball legend Erving Magic Johnson had a learning disability in the area of reading, but he still led the Los Angeles Lakers to 5 NBA Championships, picked up three League MVP’s and three Finals MVP’s.
  • Despite a learning disability, John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, was the youngest man ever to be elected as President.
  • Robert Kennedy served as Attorney General, but he had a learning disability.
  • Olympic diver Greg Louganis had dyslexia, but he is considered one of the world’s greatest divers.
  • The scientist who made major contributions to medicine and chemistry, Louis Pasteur, was said to have a learning disability.
  • Famous American Army General George Patton, also known as “Old Blood and Guts” had a learning disability. Patton commanded the 3rd Army, World War II, and was leader in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge.
  • Still think a learning disability can affect if people can be good with money and finances? It didn’t stop Charles Schwab the founder of Charles Schwab Corporation Brokerage Firm.
  • Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1925, George Bernard Shaw had a learning disability. Yet he was one of the most famous writers of the 1900s, having written 50 plays.
  • The 1st President of the United States, George Washington, is believed to have had learning disabilities that kept him from being able to spell and affected his grammar usage, yet he became America’s first president!
  • Both brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright had learning disabilities. Yet the Wright Brothers invented and built the first successful airplane. Then they made the world’s first flight near Kitty Hawk.

There are hundreds of famous people who could be on this list. Next week, we’ll look at many more people who the world would be much worse off had they “quit” because they had a developmental disability like ADHD, deafness, epilepsy, dyslexia, or blindness.

Image Credit: foxspain

Author: Tessa

  • Karen

    Hi Tessa – great way to highlight people who have disabilities and have “made it” – so many of us are different and special in our own way. I think that the word “disabled” puts undue stress on the person diagnosed. We all have our burdens and challenges – without labels, we have an easier time rising to the occasion.

  • Karen

    Hi Tessa – great way to highlight people who have disabilities and have “made it” – so many of us are different and special in our own way. I think that the word “disabled” puts undue stress on the person diagnosed. We all have our burdens and challenges – without labels, we have an easier time rising to the occasion.

  • Vidyadeleepdeepu

    As a mom of a child having development delay and learning disability, this article is giving me so much confidence.

  • Teresa Estes

    Hi Tessa – my family has just lost the most beautiful angel in the world she was fifty years old.My mother who has devoted her life to her is now lost.I am trying to help her find a way to accomplish what she now wants to do which is advocate for the developmental disabled who have issues with doctors. Any assistance you can offer will help. For years my mother fought so hard to get the M.R. label off her back and even when she died Sept 25, 2013 her death certificate read Ceberal Palsey.but she was a normal person with limitations just like you and me.I work with individuals who have limitations everyday but don’t we all. Frances K. Estes my angel and my best friend.

  • Bob Lujano

    I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Please email me at if you are wanting to advocate for people with disabilities.

  • len

    I have so much hope reading this article. Thanks

  • bobl07

    Thank you for your comments.

  • rose

    I am now 60 years old and I was told that I was behind my peers in development as a child because I contacted menningsitis I sat up at 6 months I didn’t walk until I was 3 years old but my foster mother constantly called me stupid,retarded,dumb,slow learner,I was an excellent reader,speller from the 3rd grade until I left high school I feel soooo low and depressed and I regret that I didn’t do better than I know I could I work in environmental service, and I am very angry at my selfe ,but I am blessed that I survived I was skipped from the 3 rd grade to the 5th grade for my reading usability’s at 8 years old I don’t know for sure but I don’t think I was a slow learner can someone help me to find out if I was a slow learner?

  • Brittny Braun

    Please read! We cannot let this bill for Medicaid/ health insurance pass! Call or email Senator Corey Gardner!

    What is at Stake for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities?
    States will receive less federal support to administer Medicaid if either or both of
    these approaches are enacted into law. While there is no way to be certain about
    what states would do if faced with block grants and reduced federal funds, we know
    there will be real life consequences for people with I/DD, such as:
     Losing home and community-based services and supports. Waiting lists would
    quickly grow and it could create a crisis for the over 730,000 people with I/DD
    living with aging caregivers.
     Losing other critical services such as personal care, prescription drugs, and
    rehabilitative services. If funds become more scarce, states may decide to stop
    providing these services altogether. Medicaid usually is the only way people can
    get access to durable medical equipment like wheelchairs or prosthetic
    devices, as well as assistive technology.
     Being forced into unnecessary institutionalization. States could return to the
    days of “warehousing” people with disabilities in institutions. Federal quality
    standards would be diminished or eliminated and states might once again see
    this as an acceptable option, finding it easier or more economical to serve
    people when they are “all together in one place.”
     Shifting the costs to individuals or family members to make up for the federal
    cuts. The costs of providing health care and long term services and supports
    will not go away, but will be shifted to individuals, parents, states, and
     If cost sharing levels are increased, people may be forced to forego lifesaving
    treatments, therapies, and medical care.
     Losing the entitlement to Medicaid. Currently if a person meets the eligibility
    requirements (generally poverty, age, and/or disability), he or she is entitled
    to the services available under the state Medicaid program. People could lose
    all access to health care services.
     Children will lose valuable screening, services, and therapies if the Early and
    Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment benefit is dismantled. Access to
    these important services enable children to lead healthy and more active lives
    and continue to live at home with their families.