Welcome to Part 2 in our series "5 Super Successful People With Disabilities" (be sure to check out Part 1 as well). Overcoming adversity is a cornerstone of the human experience. For many people, they are able to rise above a challenge and move on from it. However, those with disabilities may face challenges daily. So when a disabled person is able to not just overcome adversity but achieve unparalleled levels of success, it is truly inspiring!
Despite scoring the number two spot on Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” Charles didn’t have an easy upbringing. His father abandoned the family shortly after his birth in 1930, and his brother George drowned in the laundry tub. At age four, Charles began to lose his sight due to glaucoma and by seven he was completely blind. Destitute, Charles and his mom wound up living at a café that featured an old upright piano; the café’s owner taught Charles how to play and the rest is history. Before his death in 2004, Charles would go on to win many Grammys ("Hit the Road Jack" was one of his biggest award-winning hits), appear in movies such as The Blues Brothers, and receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His story was brought to life the year he died in the film Ray starring Jamie Foxx. Happily, Charles was able to attend a showing of the first edit before he passed.
Although he was born without his right hand, Abbott was determined to play ball. In high school, he became a pitcher after teaching himself a unique technique on his own: When preparing to pitch, Abbott would rest his mitt on the end of his right forearm; after releasing the ball, he’d quickly slip his hand into the mitt in time to field balls the same as any two-handed pitcher. Then, he would secure the mitt between his right forearm and torso, slip his hand out of the mitt, and remove the ball from the mitt to throw out the runner. Following high school, Abbott pitched for the University of Michigan for three years and led them to two Big Ten championships. He first joined the big leagues in 1989 with the LA Angels, and then moved to the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, and Milwaukee Brewers, pitching a total of 888 strikeouts. Today, Abbott tours the country as a motivational speaker and in 2012 his autobiography, Imperfect: An Improbable Life, was released.
From a young age, Burke wanted to be an actor despite his Down syndrome. His parents encouraged him to pursue his dream, and so Burke tried out for and landed a role in a high school play. His performance made an impression on a Hollywood producer who was in the audience, leading to his first professional acting role in an ABC television movie. ABC executives liked Burke so much they developed the show Life Goes On just for him. The show ran from 1989 to 1993, chronicling the life of Corky Thatcher, a teenager with Down syndrome adjusting to high school life. The show is credited for its realistic portrayal of people with Down syndrome and changing how audiences view people with disabilities. Following the show’s cancellation, Burke continued to work in television, appearing on shows such as ER. Today, Burke is the Goodwill Ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society and lead singer of a folk band.
Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880, Keller was just 19 months old when she was stricken by an illness that left her blind and deaf. As she got older, she became increasingly angry, inflicting tantrums on her parents. Experts recommended institutionalizing her, but instead they took Keller to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where Anne Sullivan began making tremendous strides in helping Keller communicate. At 21, Keller wrote The Story of My Life, a novel that would one day be adapted into an award-winning movie and Broadway play, The Miracle Worker. In 1920, Keller helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, and in 1946 Keller was appointed Counselor of International Relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. As Counselor, she traveled to 35 countries across five continents, making appearances and inspiring and encouraging millions around the world.
Like Ray Charles, Wonder became blind and began playing piano at an early age. Wonder also enjoyed singing, and in 1961 at just 11 years old, he sang a composition of his own, "Lonely Boy," to Ronnie White of the Miracles. White liked him so much he took Wonder to an audition at Motown; he was signed immediately. Now considered one of the most critically and commercially successful musical performers of the late 20th century, Wonder’s hits include "Superstitious," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and "I Just Called to Say I Love You." He has recorded more than 30 U.S. top ten hits and received 25 Grammy Awards, one of the most-awarded male solo artists, and has sold over 100 million records worldwide. In addition to his music, Wonder is known for his work as an activist for political causes, including his successful 1980 campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday in the United States.
There you have it. We hope you find their stories as inspiring as we do at Disability Experts of Florida. Be sure to subscribe to our blog for weekly stories (and to catch another installment of Super Successful People With Disabilities). Have an inspiring person with a disability in your life? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below.