Disabled & Neurodivergent Icons from History
Updated: Feb 24
We wanted to shed light on icons from history who you may not know had disabilities or were neurodivergent! Each of these leaders are notable for being pioneers in different areas, but their disabilities and neurodiversities are often left out of the history books when we discuss the intersections of their marginalised identities. It’s essential that we don’t let these important figures in disabled history be stripped of this aspect of their identity. We hope you learn something new about someone you already look up to!
1. Frida Kahlo
The famous painter and self-portraitist is most well-known for their surreal style and use of colour to depict what she saw in post-colonial Mexican life. Much of her work centres around ideas of gender and her experience as a queer person, which made way for great change in terms of how queerness was viewed in the world of art and wider society. Kahlo was left disabled after becoming ill with polio as a child, and left with permanent pain problems after being part of a bus accident when she was 18 years old. Later on in life, several of her paintings reflect her declining health due to Spina Bifida.
2. Alan Turing
A lot of us may know some of his story from Benedict Cumberpatch’s portrayal in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, where Turing’s sexuality is considered one of the main themes. Turing was a mathematician, computer scientist, and cryptanalyst, having been instrumental in the cracking of the German Enigma Code during The Second World War. His calculations saved millions of lives. He is also attributed as the inventor of the modern computer, and therefore an architect of how we live and communicate today. He is lesser known though, for being neurodiverse. His face now adorns the back of the latest £50 bank note, showing how much of an impact his work continues to have on all of our lives.
3. Maya Angelou
Angelou’s words have touched millions. She also used her influence to bring attention to the experience of the LGBTQ+ at the highest levels, being the first person to say ‘gay’ at a US Presidential Inauguration in 1993, as well as strongly advocating for marriage equality. One of her most famous lines is “I am gay. I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.” Here, she uses the power of the spoken word to unite the human experience, in spite of political and cultural divides. An aspect of Angelou’s life which is not well-known though, is that she developed selective mutism that was attributed to a traumatic experience as a child.
4. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth was a woman’s rights activist who also fought for the inclusion of Black women in the suffrage movement. In one of Truth’s most notable speeches, 'Ain’t I a Woman,' she highlighted the difference in experience for a woman of colour, not just between them and white women, but between them and men of colour, too. She is a forebear of the school of thought around Intersectionality.
When she was enslaved, Truth injured her hand, which made it hard for her to use it. Truth was the first Black person to have a statue in the U.S. Capitol building, but there is criticism of some depictions showing her as body-normative.
5. Elton John
Whilst Elton John is known to most for his uniting music, eccentric stage outfits and general humorous demeanour, his work as a gay man to advance the rights of LGBTQ+ people globally is something to behold - especially with the Elton John AIDS Foundation. What a lot don’t know though, is that Elton has suffered with Epilepsy for many years. He also cancelled a tour last year due to a hip injury that left him with chronic pain. Still, he does an awful lot considering he’s 75 years old!
6. Bobbi Lea Bennett
In 1978, Bobbie Lea Bennett was the first person in the United States to obtain gender-affirming surgery . Originally, she was told that Medicare funding would be provided to cover the cost of her transition. However, this was removed without explanation. As a result of the removal of her funding, she mobilised her community and protested in the office of the Medicare, refusing to leave. Because of her direct action, gender affirmation surgery became viewed as a medical necessity. Bennett is a shining example of how the LGBTQ+ people owe a lot to the disabled members of their community. What’s lesser known is that she was a wheelchair user, and had a rare bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta.
7. Marsha P. Johnson
We know Marsha as a figurehead for the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the US. A leading member of the Gay Liberation Front in New York, Johnson’s involvement in the art scene at that time - most notably working with Andy Warhol - represented a milestone in trans representation. However, Marsha is less known for her struggles with both physical and psychological disabilities. Her organisation Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) had a focus on disability justice. Johnson demanded that disabled people have free access to therapy and medical resources they voluntarily chose, but also demanded that doctors must stop trying to cure their gender identity and sexualities, arguing that oppression can in fact be a cause of disability.