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Famous People With Disabilities.



Leaders and Legends

Jim Abbott

Jim Abbott has thrown a no-hitter, won Olympic gold in 1988, and been on Letterman. He is one of a handful of professional players who never once put on a minor-league uniform, jumping instead straight from college baseball to the big league. But those aren't the only reasons we know Jim Abbott. He is the only player in major league baseball who was born with one hand.

Abbott was able to reach the major league without having a right hand, and he quickly became one of the better pitchers in the game during the early 1990's.

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Chris Burke

Chris Burke, best known for the character, Corky, played for four years on the television series, Life Goes On, and became one of America's favorite personalities. Through his work, he was able to transform America's image of the people with disabilities. Ever since Chris spoke his first word, it became clear that he was a remarkable individual with many talents.

Chris Burke was the first person with Down syndrome to star in a weekly television series. Currently, he serves as the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) Ambassador. Chris had the faith in his own abilities and the courage to face prejudice as he pursued his dream to become an actor.

Today Chris travels all around the country delivering inspirational speeches to various groups of children, students, parents, and professionals. He not only serves as editor-in-chief of the NDSS magazine for teens and young adults with Down syndrome, but also writes a column and responds to readers' correspondence in a regular question and answer feature in the magazine.

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Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise is among the most talented actors in Hollywood. His films take in hundreds of millions of dollars and his fans also number in the millions. Some of his big hits were Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Rain Man, Far and Away, A Few Good Men, Mission Impossible, and Jerry Mcguire.

Even though Tom Cruise battles dyslexia, which is a learning disability that alters the way the brain process written material, he was nominated for and won several awards for best actor.

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Patty Duke

Patty Duke is an actress. She has won three Emmy Awards for made-for-television movies. In 1965, at the age of 17, Patty became the youngest person to win an Academy Award in a regular category (Best Supporting Actress) for her role as Helen Keller in the motion-picture version of The Miracle Worker. At the age of 13, Patty starred as Helen Keller in William Gibson's play The Miracle Worker.

As part of Patty's plan to win the Helen Keller role in the play, Patty would practice at being a person with a visual impairment. She would blindfold herself and practice eating, dressing, and moving around. Patty also learned the manual sign language alphabet in preparation for her audition. It was her determination and practice that won her the role as Helen Keller.

Although successful as an actress, Patty was a very unhappy person. In 1982 Patty was finally diagnosed as having a manic-depressive disorder. Manic depression is a disease caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Patty continues to cope with this disability with medication.  The medicine is not a cure but makes the symptoms of manic depression easier to control. Patty is still an actress, but also tours the country as a disability advocate, giving talks and answering questions about manic depression and other mental illnesses.

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Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox is an actor best known for his roles in Back to the Future movies and in the televisions shows Family Ties and Spin City. In 1991 Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Fox retired from full-time acting in 2000, but still makes an occasional appearance on screen or television. He is married with four children and an advocate of stem cell research.

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Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking knew what he wanted to do by the time he was eight years old. He did not want to study medicine, a career his parents hoped he would follow. Instead, Hawking decided to be a scientist and chose physics. Stephen was interested in studying the universe. He attended Oxford University in England, as an undergraduate student. He received his Ph.D in 1966 from Cambridge University. By the time he was 35 years old, Hawking was Cambridge’s first Gravitational Physics professor and received the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics award.

Stephen Hawking has also published a book called A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. The book tries to explain many of Hawking’s physical and mathematical ideas and calculations without using math. The book became a best seller and was made into a movie.

When Stephen Hawking was 21-years-old, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also know as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This disease attacks the nerves that control a body’s voluntary movements. It affects walking, speaking, breathing, swallowing, etc. At the time of his diagnosis, the doctors gave Hawking two years to live. Hawking has defied this time frame and is still working. Today, Stephen cannot move much at all, has trouble holding his head up, and cannot speak, though he doesn't let it stop him. He now uses a special computer that displays the text he types and speaks what he types with an electronic voice.

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Henry Holden

From the time he was a young child, Henry Holden’s dream was that of becoming an actor. To date Henry has numerous acting credits to his name. He has made appearances on T. J. Hooker, AFTERmash, Hill Street Blues, Knots Landing, Hunter, Dear John, and Kids Incorporated. Henry also starred in a rock video, entitled, "I Got News for You." In addition to acting, Henry is an athlete, stand-up comic, and activist. Henry’s athletic accomplishments include downhill skiing, certified scuba diving, bowling a high score of 196 in league competition, flying gliders and single engine airplanes, riding at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and finishing in the Los Angeles Marathon. Finishing the New York City Marathon is on Henry’s "To Do" list!

Henry Holden contracted polio during the 1952 Epidemic. He was four years old at that time. His disability has never stopped him from pursuing a path of excellence in his life, even though he wears leg braces and uses crutches. In addition to his acting career he now speaks on the guest lecture circuit on college campuses and K-12 schools across the country. Henry is a tireless advocate for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all forms of entertainment and media. He is the founder of Performers with Disabilities for the Screen Actors Guild, and recently, he was the recipient of the very first American Scene Award given by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Arts for the rock video he starred in entitled I’ve Got News For You. Henry’s motto is "Attitudes are the Real Disability!"
See Henry's web site for more information on this actor, comedian, and athlete:

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Geri Jewell

Geri Jewell is an actor and comedian born with cerebral palsy. She is most famous for her roles on The Facts of Life and HBO's Deadwood. Geri was awarded a National Rehabilitation Hospital Victory Award in 2006 and also works as a motivational speaker. Visit her website at

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Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson, at 6-foot 9, was the tallest point guard in the National Basketball Association (NBA). His talents elicited wonder and admiration from even the most casual basketball fan. He accomplished everything a player could dream of during his 12 year NBA career.

On November 7, 1991, Johnson retired from professional basketball because a blood test had shown that he was infected with HIV. He then dedicated his life to educating people -- especially youngsters -- about HIV and AIDS prevention. He established the Magic Johnson Foundation to raise money to fund HIV and AIDS organizations.

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Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin is a stand-up comedian and an actress. Some of her films include Dead Silence, It's My Party, Hear No Evil, Bridge to Silence, Walker, and Children of A Lesser God. In 1987, she captivated the world by winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in the film Children of a Lesser God.

Marlee Matlin became deaf in infancy due to Roseola infantum.

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Terence Parkin

Many swimmers competed in multiple events during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.  One of them was Terence Parkin of South Africa.  Terence's events included the 200 and 400 meter individual medley, the 4x100 meter free relay, and the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke.  He swam in a total of eight different qualifying and final races in five days during the Olympics.  Terence finished fifth in the 400 meter individual medley.  In the 200 meter breaststroke, he finished second to win the silver medal.

What makes this 20-year-old Olympic swimmer somewhat unique is that he has never been able to hear a race starter's signal.  Born deaf, Terence uses a strobe light similar to a camera flash to signal the beginning of the race.  The Olympic competitor only began swimming at age 14.  Now he holds three national records in South Africa and owns a silver medal from the Sydney Olympics.

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Itzhak Perlman

Perlman began his music career at the Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv, Israel. In 1958, at the age of 13, Itzhak Perlman won an Israeli talent competition. This win made it possible for Perlman to travel to the United States to tour and appear on television. He then stayed in the U.S. and continued his musical training at the Juilliard School in New York City. In 1964, Perlman won a contest among young musicians known as the Leventritt Competition. Winning this competition opened the door for young Perlman to perform his violin music all over the world.

Itzhak, now an acclaimed violinist of his generation, has performed with every major orchestra and in recitals and festivals the world over. In 1986, he received the nation’s Medal of Liberty from U.S. President Ronald Reagan. His joy of making music has captivated audiences and has achieved Perlman a level of respect and admiration among people of many nations. Great violin concertos make up the core of Perlman’s recorded music, ranging from the baroque to the contemporary. Perlman is also featured in the hit movie Music of the Heart.

Born (1945) in Tel Aviv, Israel, Itzhak Perlman contracted polio at age 4, permanently paralyzing his legs. He performs his music while seated and walks with crutches. Itzhak is a well known advocate for people with disabilities, actively promoting laws to ease access to buildings and transportation.

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Patricia Polacco

Patricia Polacco is a writer and illustrator of children's books.  She did not start writing children's books until she was 41 years old!  Patricia majored in Fine Art and received her Ph.D. in Art History.  Ms. Polacco now lives on an old historical farmstead in Union City, Michigan.  She named her farmstead Meteor Ridge.  You can read all about the meteor that landed in Ms. Polacco's grandparents' yard by reading her book Meteor.  For more information on this and other books Ms. Polacco has written, visit her website at

The unique thing about Patricia Polacco is that she has been writing children's books even after she was diagnosed as having Dyslexia, Dysnumeria and Dysgraphia at the age of 14.  Patricia did not learn to read well until after she was 14 years old.  A teacher was able to get the additional help Ms. Pollaco needed to overcome her reading problems!  Ms. Pollaco has written a book about her experiences and this teacher who helped her.  The book is titled Thank You, Mr. Falker.  You can find information about this book at the website mentioned above.  Enjoy!

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Christopher Reeve

Christopher Reeve grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, with his mother and his stepfather. In 1977 Reeve was chosen from 200 hopefuls to star in Superman for which he won the British Academy Award as best actor.

During a cross-country event in May 1995, his horse balked at a rail jump, pitching Reeve forward where he landed head first. His injuries left the actor paralyzed, unable to use any of his limbs or even to breathe without the help of a respirator.

Reeve was dedicated to increasing public awareness about spinal cord injury and to raising money for research for a cure. He was also the chairman of the American Paralysis Association and vice chairman of the National Organization on Disability. Furthermore, Reeve founded the Christopher Reeve Foundation in 1996 to raise research money and provide grants to local agencies which focus on the quality of life of people with disabilities. Reeve died at age 52 on October 10, 2004 from cardiac arrest caused by systemic infection. His wife, Dana Reeve died of lung cancer in March 2006.

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Franklin Roosevelt

In 1928, Franklin Roosevelt was elected as the governor of New York. He then started campaigning for the presidency, and he became the 32nd president of the United States in 1932. Furthermore, by defeating Alfred Landon in 1936, Wendell L. Wilkie in 1940, and Thomas Dewey in 1944, he became the only American President to serve more than two terms.

In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt contracted a near fatal case of polio that left him with limited physical activity. He established a foundation at Warm Springs, Georgia to help other people who had polio, and he directed the March of Dimes Program that eventually funded an effective vaccine. As a result of polio, Roosevelt used a wheelchair and stood with the aid of steel leg braces. He tried numerous treatments, but was never able to walk on his own again.

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Marla Runyan

One of the women representing the United States in the 1500 meter track event at the 2000 Olympics was Marla Runyan.  The American runner finished seventh in her preliminary heat and rose to sixth in the semifinals to qualify for the finals.   During the final race, Marla lost track of the major competitors.  She finished in eighth position, 3.20 seconds behind the gold medal winner.

In 1996, Marla set several track and field records at the Paralympics in Atlanta, Georgia.  Following that success, Marla wanted to compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney -- even though she is legally blind.  The 31-year-old runner has been diagnosed with Stargardt disease.  This is a condition that leaves her with a limited ability to see what is in front of her.  In Sydney, Marla became the first legally blind athlete to compete in an Olympics.

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Mike Utley

Mike Utley was the greatest football player in the history of John F. Kennedy High School in Seattle, Washington. He became only the second player at Washington State University to earn consensus first team All American Honors. During the Rams game in November 1991, he fractured his 6th and 7th cervical vertebrae and became paralyzed.

Through his own fight to walk again, Utley founded the Mike Utley Foundation in 1991. The Foundation is dedicated to supporting research to cure paralysis and to help all people with spinal cord injuries.

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Heather Whitestone

The new Miss America for 1995 is...(drum roll)...Heather Whitestone of Birmingham, Alabama!

There she is...Miss America. But unlike other Miss America crown holders, Heather never actually heard those words in 1995 as she was crowned. Miss Whitestone was the first person with a disability ever to be selected as Miss America. Heather had been deaf since the age of 18 months. Doctors told Heather’s parents that she would never read beyond the third grade level, nor learn to speak. In response to the judges’ question about her aim in life, she replied that she would like to assist children from all backgrounds to reach their fullest potential in life, to set high goals, and achieve them, as she had done. Heather’s special talent for the Miss America talent portion of the contest was ballet.

Heather Whitestone is currently the spokesperson for the Helen Keller Eye Research Foundation and the Starkey Hearing Aid Foundation. She has also authored a book entitled, Listening with My Heart. Ms. Whitestone is a motivational speaker who believes in and promotes following your dreams. She is now married and expecting her second child in 2001.

In 2002 she decided to have a cochlear implant operation in order to hear more fully in her right ear. The primary motivator for electing the surgery was an incident when she did not hear her son's cries for help. She said that she has not regretted her decision, thanking her family for supporting her.

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If you are interested in information about other people with disabilities, check out the resource listed below:

Hent, D. & Quinlan, K. A. 1996. Extraordinary People with Disabilities.
   Danbury, CT: Children's Press, A Division of Grolier Publishing.

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