When asked to name a famous disabled person, past or present, most people could probably answer Stephen Hawking. At a push, someone might say Helen Keller, Nelson Bonaparte, Ivarr the Boneless, or Richard 3rd (a.k.a, Richard of York, even if historians did try to claim that his disability was made up by William Shakespeare to mock him, prior to discovering his disabled skeleton in a random car park). However, there are countless instances of disabled people influencing society that are never mentioned, and I took the time to put together a list of answers that would win you precisely nothing if this question was asked on Family Fortunes.
Before we begin, it’s important to establish the ways in which disability is erased from public knowledge. There are two ways in which this happens; there are the forgotten disabled people who never get mentioned, and there are famous people whose disabilities are overlooked. As such, while I couldn’t possibly rank the ten people I’ve picked into a traditional listicle, I have grouped them into two equal categories based on the two types of erasure, and whether or not I had heard the names of these people prior to becoming disabled myself.
Part 1: Disabled People Who Never Get Mentioned.
Barbara Jordan is possibly more well known in America, but outside of the USA where American history is not taught in any great detail, her name is not familiar. Barbara was the first Black person to be a member of the Texas Senate, and later was the first Black woman to sit in the US House of Representatives, representing the Democrats. While her relationship or sexuality were never officially declared, she lived with another woman for several decades, bringing queer representation into politics at the height of the civil rights movement. Her partner would become a caregiver when Barbara developed the degenerative neurological condition Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in the early 1970’s, and Barbara’s career continued long after her diagnosis. Barbara later developed Leukaemia, passing away of pneumonia in the 1990’s. She was only 59.
Benjamin Lay was born in England in 1682, with the condition dwarfism. He was brought up as a Quaker and worked on the family farm, but eventually moved to Barbados in the early 18th Century. In Barbados, he saw first-hand and was appalled by the way slaves were treated, and became a fervent abolitionist who frequently spoke out and acted against slave owners. His unique appearance contributed to his notoriety as an ardent political activist, and he eventually authored All Slave Keepers That keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, which future President Benjamin Franklin helped to publish. Lay even went so far as to point out the hypocrisy of Franklin who was a slave-owner himself, and helped convince Franklin to add a clause to his will that would free his slaves upon his death.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner.
Mary Davidson, sometimes called Mary Keller to avoid confusion with an actress of the same name, was a Black woman most famous for inventing the sanitary belt for use when menstruating and after birth. This revolutionary technology was not taken seriously for decades due to her race, an experience shared by many of the other equally creative inventors in her family, so to make ends meet she also worked as a professional floral arranger. Her creativity and adaptability would serve her well when, later in life she developed MS, and she patented tools to help people who needed to use mobility aids carry items with them. I almost certainly would not have my invaluable rollator without her original idea.
Rosa May Billinghurst.
Rosa May Billinghurst had difficulties walking as a result of Polio, and so used a tricycle, predecessor of the modern wheelchair, when out and about. For Rosa, out and about happened to include being a prominent figure in the suffragette movement, as a prolific activist and member of the community. She had a reputation for using crutches to propel her tricycle at any opposition, unafraid to use it as a weapon when most viewed her as inconsequential at best. Unfortunately, disgruntled police were also unafraid to exploit the physical advantage they had over her, and tipped her out of her tricycle at least once. Her peers were, however, happy to assist her back into her tricycle to continue their work. Rosa was also arrested numerous times throughout her campaigning, although once women were finally given the vote in Britain in 1918, her political activity declined.
Fannie Lou Hamer.
Like many of those who contracted polio and survived, Fannie Lou Hamer was left with the long-term consequences. Her disability was exacerbated by injuries sustained from police brutality and racist assaults, and she was forcefully sterilised during a surgery to remove a uterine tumour, despite her wish to have children with her husband. Her experiences of discrimination from an early age lead her into a life of activism, with a particular focus on women’s rights and anti-racist movements. She was deeply spiritual, and often used hymnals and quotes in her speeches to motivate likeminded souls, and in particular to show solidarity with Black women who were facing the same struggles as her. Much like Barbara Jordan, she was only 59 when she died.
Part 2: Famous People You Didn’t Know Were Disabled.
When research and compiling this list, I wanted to include someone neurodiverse to highlight that neurodiversity receives the same treatment as disability in terms of being erased. With the diagnostic criteria for such conditions only being relatively recently developed, it’s much harder to conclusively identify neurodiversity in historical figures like Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton, therefore a present-day figure was selected. This also highlights how disability can be erased even while people are still alive.
Dan Aykroyd is a popular comedian and actor, most famous for his work on Saturday Night Live, and in films like Ghost Busters and The Blues Brothers. He also has Asperger’s Syndrome, a sub-type of autism, as well as the tic-based symptoms of Tourette’s. In interviews, Aykroyd has expressed how having Asperger’s actually made it easier to contribute to the comedy scene, with his unique perspective enhancing his work, particularly in Ghost Busters.
Florence Nightingale was a nurse, most famous for her work during the Crimean war, and her efforts in establishing nursing as a legitimate medical profession. Her contributions to modern medicine are substantial, so much so that International Nursing Day is celebrated on her birthday. Florence’s career far exceeds simply being The Lady With The Lamp, as she was also a prolific writer. In her later years she developed a mystery illness characterised by an extreme malaise, leaving her bed-bound for many years. It is speculated that she had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, although of course we will never know for sure. Like many M.E patients, she continued to work from her bed.
Frida Kahlo was a self-taught Mexican painter, most well-known for her lively and bold self-portraits that drew influence from Mexican folk culture. Like many others on this list, she had polio which left her disabled, and a nasty car accident a few years later left her with chronic pain and other medical issues. Frida married and travelled, becoming almost as well known for her liberal and feminist ideals as her artwork. She was also known to have relationships with people of different genders, and as such is something of a queer icon. Impressively, Frida was also the first Mexican artist to have work purchased by and displayed in the Louvre, following successful exhibitions of her paintings in New York.
Frida died at age 47 following multiple surgeries, infections, and an amputation that made her increasingly disabled until her death in 1954.
Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States, winning a record number of elections, serving three terms (more than any other US President) and guiding America through one of their most troubled eras. He was also disabled.
FDR had what was initially thought to be polio, but is now believed to be Guillian-Barre syndrome, leaving him with partial paralysis. Upon falling ill, he was encouraged to retire from the public eye, but both he and his wife felt that his political career should continue. He did his utmost to hide his disability from the public as it would have been taken as a sign of weakness, choosing only to use his wheelchair away from the general public’s eye.
Harriet Tubman was a slave, escaping in her early teens, enabling approximately seventy slaves to escape over thirteen missions through a railroad of secret bases and safehouses, rescuing her family as a priority. She would also help the freed slaves to find employment, ensuring their future. During the American Civil War, she worked as a cook, nurse, scout, spy, and expedition leader for the Union Army, leading a mission that freed approximately 700 slaves. She also partook in the women’s suffrage movement.
Throughout her life, Tubman struggled with the after-effects of a head injury sustained during a brutal attack from a slave owner, exacerbated by further injuries throughout her life. The initial head injury led to pain, fits, and hypersomnia. An icon in every sense of the word, Harriet Tubman remains a symbol of freedom to this day.
This list could not possibly include every disabled person to contribute to history and pop culture, who in reality are far too numerous to count; Edith Pretty, Annie Sullivan, Ian Dury, Lady Gaga, Ray Charles, Leonardo Da Vinci, Marsha P Johnson, and Claude Monet could all have their own paragraphs. What this selection should show, however, is how easily the significant achievements of disabled people are overlooked, feeding into the notion that disabled people cannot possibly make meaningful contributions to society. In particular, women, LGBTQAI+, & BAME figures are far more likely to have their disabilities erased and overlooked, although even the most privileged among us face their fair share of erasure. When we forget about disability, we are forgetting about some of the most brilliant human beings ever to have lived.