Disability Social History Project

Famous (and not-so-famous) People with Disabilities

Ever Lee Hairston (

Ever Lee Hairston describes herself as Black, Blind, Successful, and Blessed as she travels throughout the U.S. and abroad lobbying for the blind. As a child, Hairston worked picking cotton and attended segregated schools. As an activist in the blind community, she is the Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey and founder of the Garden State Chapter, Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Ever Lee serves as coordinator for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind Lead Program (a mentoring program for blind and visually impaired teens; teaching leadership, education, advocacy, and determination).
NFB - Black, Blind, and Successful: The Story of a Fighter

Ever Lee Hairston's speech at the conference of the National Federation of the Blind of California in October 2009

Little Known Black History Fact: Elizabeth Suggs, Early 20th Century Author with Brittle Bones Disorder (1876 – 1908)

From what little is known about her, Eliza was the youngest of her siblings, and was born to former slaves who lived in Bureau County, Illinois near the town of Providence. It was discovered that she had brittle bones four months after her birth, when she experienced her first series of fractures. Eliza seemed to have had a more severe form of OI, and her bones would break from the slightest movements.
More information: Ramp Your Voice - The Life of Eliza Suggs

Harriet Tubman - Rescuer of Slaves (1820-1913)

Harriet Tubman was a slave born on a plantation in Maryland. When she was thirteen years old she threw herself between a fellow slave and the plantation overseer who was about to whip him. The overseer struck Harriet on the head. For the rest of her life she had a form of epilepsy. When she was 29 Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and dedicated the rest of her life to rescuing other slaves and to civil rights, including women's suffrage.
More information:
New York History Net - The Life of Harriet Tubman
The Harriet Tubman Historical Society
TeacherLink Lesson Plan on Harriet Tubman for 4th-5th grades
Electric Foundry Famous People - Harriet Tubman

John Wesley Powell - Explorer, Geologist (1834-1902)

John Wesley Powell had an strong interest in nature and science even as a child. After he lost his right arm in the Civil War, his father urged him to become a minister saying, "Wes, you are a maimed man, get this notion of science and adventure out of your mind." Ignoring this John Wesley became a science professor and explorer who developed an interest in preserving Native American cultures. In 1879, he founded the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology to study and record the traditions of Native Americans.
More information:
John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum

"Blind Tom" Wiggins (1849-1908)

Thomas Wiggins was a slave from Georgia who may have been autistic. From an early age he had the ability to compose and play music and he toured concert halls in Europe and America as a musical oddity. Geneva Handy Southall wrote a book about him entitled, "Blind Tom, The Black Pianist Composer: Continually Enslaved."
More Information: The Tragic Story of America’s First Black Music Star | Archangels Unaware - a biography from Twainquotes

Otto Weidt (1883-1947)

Otto Weidt was compelled by his growing blindness to abandon his work as a wallpaper hanger. He thereupon set up a workshop for the blind at 39, Rosenthalerstrasse in Berlin N., which manufactured brushes and brooms. Practically all of his employees were blind and/or deaf Jews. They were assigned to him from the Jewish Home for the Blind in Berlin-Stegliz. When the deportations began, Weidt fought with Gestapo officials over the fate of every single Jewish worker. As means of persuasion he would use both bribery and the argument that his employees were essential for fulfilling orders commissioned by the army. Once, when the Gestapo had arrested several of his workers, the self-appointed guardian of the Jewish blind went in person to the assembly camp at the Grosse Hamburger-Strasse, where the Jews were incarcerated pending deportation, and succeeded in securing their release at the last minute.
More Information:
Jewish Virtual Library | Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind | The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation

Franklin Delano Roosevelt - U.S. President (1882-1945)

Franklin Roosevelt served for 3 terms as President of the United States and helped pull the country out of the depression through social programs. He also led the U.S. through World War II. Due to polio, FDR could not walk unassisted. Unfortunately, because of the times, he felt he had to hide the extent of his disability from the American public.
More Information:
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Digital Archives
The Internet Public Library - Presidents of the United States - Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Polio History Pages: FDR and His Disability - Lesson Ideas
Book: Gallagher, Hugh. FDR's Splendid Deception : The Moving Story of Roosevelt's Massive Disability-And the Intense Efforts to Conceal It from the Public.

Dorothea Lange - Photographer (1895-1965)

Dorothea Lange walked with a limp due to contracting polio at the age of seven. She said of her disability - "I think it was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me. If formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, humiliated me, all those things at once. I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it." Lange spent her life traveling the world photographing mostly the disenfranchised.
More Information:
Library of Congress: Women Come to the Front - Journalists, Photographers, and Broadcasters During World War II - Dorothea Lange
Oakland Museum of California - Dorothea Lange Archive

Frida Kahlo - Artist (1907-1954)

Born in Mexico, Frida Kahlo is known throughout the world for her unusual, colorful, and sometimes disturbing paintings. Her disabilities stemmed from childhood polio and a horrible bus accident when she was eighteen. Many of her paintings reflect the physical pain she suffered through most of her life. Kahlo was also active in Mexican political causes which led to her joining the Communist Party.
More Information: Art Cyclopedia - Frida Kahlo | Artsy - Frida Kahlo

Audre Lorde - Poet, Activist (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde's family was from the Caribbean island of Grenada but she grew up in New York City. After being married and raising two children, Lorde came out as a lesbian in 1971. Her writings and lectures reflected her concern for the oppressed: women, gays and lesbians, and racial minorities. When she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer she refused to wear a prothesis stating, "Either I love my body one-breasted now, or remain forever alien to myself." Lorde won several awards for her writing.
More Information:
LambaNet - Remember Audre Lorde
University of Colorado at Boulder - A Tribute to Audre Lorde

Judi Chamberlin - Mental Patients' Liberation Activist (1944-2010)

In her early 20s Judi Chamberlin was hospitalized in a state institution due to depression. She was horrified by the prison-like atomosphere of the hospital and soon discovered that, as a psychiatric patient, she had no legal rights. Later, in the 1970s, Judi cofounded a group of psychiatric survivors called the Mental Patients Liberation Front. In 1978 she published a book, On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System. Judi received the Distinguished Service Award of the President of the United States from the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in 1992.
More Information:
National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy - Judi Chamberlin

Wilma Mankiller - Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (1945-2010)

Wilma Mankiller was a homemaker living in the San Francisco suburbs during the 1960s when she became involved with the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. The protest inspired Mankiller to become more involved in Native American issues and she eventually returned to her Cherokee country in northeastern Oklahoma. In 1979, while Mankiller was in the hospital recovering from a serious car accident, whe was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. She continued working with the Cherokee Nation and in 1985 became principal chief, the first woman ever to hold such a high-ranking position in a major tribal government.
More Information:
Salon - Wilma Mankiller
PowerSource Gallery - Wilma Mankiller former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Harilyn Rousso - Disability Rights Activist/Psychotherapist (1946-)

After earning a degree in economics from Brandeis University and working for a while at the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, DC, Harilyn Rousso discovered she had an interest in a career that would involve interpersonal relationships. She became an activist after being dropped from a psychotherapy training institute solely because of her disability. Harilyn was also involved in the women's movement and became active in trying to get both movements to acknowledge and incorporate each other. In the early 1980s she helped design the Networking Project for Disabled Women and Girls, and in 1988 Harilyn edited the book, Disabled, Female, and Proud.
More Information:
Women Make Movies - Positive Images: Portraits of Women with Disabilities by Harilyn Rousso and Julie Harrison
Disabled Yet Intact: stories from a life in progress "Birth, Mine" - Harilyn Rousso memoir

Judy Heumann - Assistant Secretary of Education (b. 1947)

Judy Heumann fought all her life to be included in the educational system. When the New York City Board of Education refused to let her teach, even the ACLU would not help, but after a long struggle she eventually won her case. In 1970 Judy and several disabled friends founded Disabled in Action, an organization that set out to secure the protection of people with disabilities under civil rights laws. She moved to Berkeley in 1973 where she served as deputy director of the Center for Independent Living and led the takeover of the HEW offices in San Francisco to get Califano to sign the Section 504 regulations. In 1983, with Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann cofounded the World Institute on Disability, and then served as Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation. In June 2002, Judy Heumann became the World Bank Advisor on Disability & Development.

Helen Keller - Deaf/Blind Activist

From the American Federation of the Blind. Over 1500 items, a panorama of the lives of Helen Keller, her teacher, and her companions. The photos depict Helen Keller's work for people who are blind or visually impaired in the United States and abroad, as well as her daily activities at home and her work on the vaudeville stage and in Hollywood.

Jhamak Ghimire - Nepalese Poet and Writer (1980)

Ghimire was born with cerebral palsy and taught herself to read and write. "Now she has been a known literary person in Nepal. As a result of her dedication to literature writing, she has been awarded by Kabita Ram Bal Sahitya Prativa Puraskar 2055, Aswikrit Bichar Sahitya Puraskar 2056 and many other letters of felicitation from different social organization. Some people would like to address her as 'Hellen Keller of Nepal'." (from ASMITA)

Laura Hershey, writer, poet, activist

Writer, poet, feminist, activist— Laura Hershey focused on telling the world that people with disabilities could lead rewarding, useful lives and that they deserved the right to pursue such a lifestyle. Her considerable organizational skills rallied the disability community regularly. (See obituary in the Littleton Independent News). Laura Hershey's memorial page.