Stephen Hawking and Other Wildly Successful People Who Also Have a Disability
We often wonder what it takes to be rich and famous. We dream about being the CEO of a company or founder of a large corporation. Well, to succeed in that world, you have to be special, be inspired, and do it in a way no one has done it before.
Today, nearly 1 in 5 people has some sort of disability. So it makes sense that even some of the most famous stars and successful people have “made it” with a disability in tow. Sometimes a disability is viewed as a hindrance in life, and other times, it’s a blessing in disguise. All it takes is a little adaptation to get moving. For instance, have you ever wondered where Dan Aykroyd’s idea for Ghostbusters came from?
These 15 successful people took disabilities and used them to their advantage. Here’s how they did it. No. 5 built a $5 billion real estate empire.
1. Ingvar Kamprad: Founder of Ikea
Ingvar Kamprad, the Swedish entrepreneur, is well known around the globe for founding the furniture retailer, Ikea. And he has dyslexia. Ikea is famously known for its ready-to-assemble furniture and detailed instructions. And if you’ve never had the experience of shopping at Ikea, it’s something you’ll want to do this weekend.
Most of the creative liberties that distinguish this store from other retailers are a result of Kamprad’s dyslexia. For example, numeric codes are replaced with European names, places, and islands that make it easier to identify each furniture piece. His disorder causes him to struggle with numbers, so using pictures and letters made more sense. Clearly, it worked because he is now the richest businessman in Europe.
Next: You’ve probably heard of our next successful billionaire, and his corporation that owns more than 400 companies.
2. Richard Branson: Business mogul
Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group, a corporation that controls more than 400 companies — a pretty hefty feat for someone called lazy and stupid in grade school. Nowadays, Branson attributes a lot of his success to his dyslexia and learning disabilities. In an interview with The Washington Post, he claims the key to his success is delegation.
Dyslexia makes it hard to read and interpret letters, numbers, and symbols, but it does not affect general intelligence. As someone with a perceived learning disability, he knows point blank what his strengths and weaknesses are. Finding people who can support those strengths and build on those weaknesses are crucial. Even his ad campaigns and marketing materials are modified to exclude any industry jargon that could confuse the average reader.
Next: Pro surfer phenom
3. Bethany Hamilton: Pro surfer
Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton is the inspiration behind the movie Soul Surfer, and living proof that physical disabilities are only as limiting as you perceive them to be. At age 13, Hamilton lost her arm to a 14-foot tiger shark and 60% of her blood as a result. She hopped back on the board within a month, despite doubts that she’d be able to paddle as fast, or balance enough, to ever be competitive again. Since then, she’s placed in numerous world surfing events and even nabbed third place on reality show, The Amazing Race with her husband.
Next: A founder with Asperger’s
4. Penelope Trunk: Founder of Brazen Careerist and Quistic
Penelope Trunk has one is the most honest and real career blogs out there today. She gives insight into her life as a founder and CEO of multiple startups while managing Asperger’s, a form of autism. She also was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, making it hard not to be overwhelmed by outside stimuli.
However, none of that stopped her from creating the career-management platform, Brazen Careerist, which works to level the playing field for next-generation professionals and connect them with others in their fields. Her most recent startup is Quistic, a resource of online courses that help you learn new, relevant skills.
She found success by only revealing her deficits to those she trusts and establishing strict daily routines. Trunk avoids people and places that affect her negatively because after a lifetime of living with a disability, she knows where she shines and where she doesn’t.
Next: Deal or no deal?
5. Howie Mandel: Comedian and TV host
Comedian, actor, and TV host Howie Mandel has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It was no secret Mandel did not like people touching him, but we never knew why. Then, in an interview with ADDitude Magazine, Mandel admitted he impulsively revealed his disorder on a talk show.
His advice for other people with ADHD and OCD? Find an environment that works for you, and use your disadvantages to your advantage. Mandel struggles to read detailed movie scripts but has better focus when he moves around a set. He also uses meditation and psychotherapy to develop coping skills but urges people to find what works for them specifically.
Today, Mandel is a mental-health advocate. He often says there isn’t a universal cure, as our unique bodies and brain chemistry force us to experiment with treatments and stay flexible.
Next: Our next success story can be found on the hit show Shark Tank.
6. Barbara Corcoran: Real-estate mogul and investor
Shark Tank investor Barbara Corcoran built a $5 billion empire in real estate using a $1,000 loan from her boyfriend — and she has dyslexia. In an interview with Entrepreneur, she actually says the disorder gives her freedom. She never uses her dyslexia as a crutch because she feels it’s made her more competitive, brave, and creative as a businesswoman.
Fun fact: Her Shark Tank co-stars Kevin O’Leary and Daymond John also have dyslexia and would credit their success to being able to turn their disorder into a motivating factor. After all, it’s those differences that get you to places only you could go.
Next: The disability that inspired Ghostbusters
7. Dan Aykroyd: Actor and comedian
Saturday Night Live comedian and Ghostbusters actor Dan Aykroyd was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome at age 12. Ironically, his nervous ticks and grunts made him shy around his peers until therapy helped him manage his symptoms.
An Asperger’s diagnosis came later in life. In an interview with The Daily Mail, Aykroyd revealed his Asperger’s made him obsessed with ghosts and law enforcement. Thus, the idea for Ghostbusters was born.
Next: What is trichotillomania?
8. Olivia Munn: Actress
Actress Olivia Munn is famous for her roles in Magic Mike, The Newsroom, and other on-screen films. Since then, her career has been on full blast — so much so that very few people would guess she battles anxiety disorder, trichotillomania, a condition that falls under the Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorder (OCSD) umbrella. Trichotillomania is an impulsive disorder that results in the urge to pull one’s hair out, usually triggered by environmental and emotional stress.
“I don’t bite my nails, but I rip my eyelashes,” Munn confessed to the New York Daily News. “It doesn’t hurt, but it’s really annoying. Every time I run out of the house, I have to stop and pick up a whole set of fake eyelashes.” But battling a life riddled with anxiety has forced her to examine her social circle much more carefully. She surrounds herself with supportive and motivating people that can help curb her anxious feelings and suppress her urges.
Next: A famous author you never knew battled depression
9. JK Rowling: Author
JK Rowling is the genius mastermind behind some of the world’s most popular fantasy novels, Harry Potter. You’d never know she was once a struggling writer and single mom who once considered suicide and felt limited by chronic depression. Since penning such elaborate works, the author has opened up to fans often offering advice and motivation via Twitter. Even the Potter books themselves house lessons in depression and recovery.
Rowling has also been quite vocal about the role depression played in her success, stating in a Harvard University commencement speech, “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Next: The founder of FedEx Office
10. Paul Orfalea: Founder of FedEx Office (Kinko’s)
Businessman Paul Orfalea ran the successful copy store chain Kinko’s all while having ADHD and dyslexia. His management style was nontraditional. In fact, he never carried a pen, often allowing others to handle correspondence for him because he didn’t like to read or write. According to an interview with Ability Magazine, he doesn’t know how to operate any of the machines in his stores.
Instead of focusing on the details, Orfalea chose to view the bigger picture. His disorders allowed him to focus on the abstract. He’s also a great judge of character — something that served him well while building his corporation.
And he refused to focus on his weaknesses. In his book, Copy This!, he says, “Whenever I felt down, whenever I started wondering what homeless shelter I would die in, [my mother] would buck me up by telling me: You know, Paul, the A students work for the B students, the C students run the companies, and the D students dedicate the buildings.”
Next: A man who defied all odds
11. Stephen Hawking: Physicist
Stephen Hawking, who passed away on March 14, 2018, had the neurological disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This disease gradually weakens the muscles and limits one’s ability for motor functions. For most, the onset doesn’t occur until later in life, but Hawking’s diagnosis came at age 21.
Most people — less than 20% — don’t make it past year five after the diagnosis. Hawking defied the odds by living to 76. He claimed that being able to continue his work as a theoretical physicist helped him survive. Since 1985, he spoke with his trademark computer system, operating it with his cheek.
Next: The most decorated Olympian
12. Michael Phelps: Professional swimmer
The Olympic phenom with 28 medals to his name is also diagnosed with ADHD. He struggled to learn in school, but was lucky enough to find comfort elsewhere. In his books, Beyond the Surface, Phelps says, ““Once I figured out how to swim, I felt so free.” He recalls, “I could go fast in the pool, it turned out, in part because being in the pool slowed down my mind. In the water, I felt, for the first time, in control.”
Michael’s mom Debbie, a long time ADHD advocate, says the key to tackling ADHD is to get assistance where you can. For the Phelps family, it was funneling his energy into swimming. Attention is difficult for those with this disorder, but he can concentrate at swim meets for hours at a time because it’s his passion. “ADHD kids have great passion – it just needs to be funneled.”
Next: The creator of accessible minivans
13. Ralph Braun: Creator of accessible minivans
In the ultimate lemons to lemonade story, Ralph Braun took his muscular dystrophy diagnosis and turned it into something positive. As a young boy, he was unwilling to live his life within the limitations of a wheelchair.
Through his company, BraunAbility, he gave mobility to those bound by wheelchairs. It was 1966 when he created the first wheelchair-accessible van with hand controls. And in 1991, he created the first accessible minivan. Before his death in 2013, President Barack Obama named Braun a “champion of change.”
Next: An angry boxer with depression
14. Mike Tyson: Professional boxer
Boxer Mike Tyson has been put through the ringer in more ways than one throughout his lifetime. His vicious, take-no-prisoners attitude served him well in the ring, but outside, he battled mania and chronic depression. The man known for famously biting Evander Holyfield’s ear off during a match in 1997, has also served multiple prison sentences for abuse and battled a life’s worth of addiction.
If you ever see a depressed person … they hold on to everything,” he states. “They play with pictures all the time.” But recently, Tyson admitted he’s learning how to let go, as it’s the key to survival.
Next: The Star Wars superstar who hid her battles
15. Carrier Fisher: Actress
The beloved Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher used her platform as a powerful force against mental illness. Before passing away in 2016, she conveyed honesty about living with bipolar disorder, depression, and addiction via her advice column, “Ask Carrie” with The Guardian.
Those who have bipolar disorder experience high-energy manic episodes balanced out by debilitating depressive episodes. Despite such obstacles, Princess Leia inspired many others to conquer the disability by focusing on community.
In her last advice column, she responds to one reader, saying “We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic — not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder. That’s why it’s important to find a community — however small — of other bipolar people to share experiences and find comfort in the similarities.”
Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.