The work that the 10 authors below produced would have been incredible for anyone, but when you consider the obstacles they had to overcome, difficulties they had to face and the no-fear attitude they had to possess, it’s all the more impressive. We’re celebrating them in honor of Helen Keller meeting her teacher Anne Sullivan 127 years ago today. That meeting helped shape a woman who would teach thousands and thousands of others that having a disability does not mean you aren’t capable of greatness.
1. Helen Keller
Keller was rendered blind and deaf at just 19 months old, after suffering through scarlet fever. Despite her disabilities, she learned to read in multiple languages and went on to graduate college. Keller is an objectively remarkable woman, but her life would have been drastically different without the help of Sullivan. She helped Keller make incredible progress in her ability to communicate, and the two shared a 49-year relationship as student and teacher.
2. Peter Winkler
It was only after publication of Winkler’s book, a biography of actor Dennis Hopper, that his agent learned how exactly Winkler had written it: The author has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for the majority of his life, and he is dependent on his sister and a long plastic chopstick to communicate. Early in Winkler’s life, it seemed that his disability might get the best of his perseverance. Though he was able to graduate from UCLA, he went on to Loyola Law School to find his arthritis to be too much of an ailment, especially with an unsympathetic administration. After dropping out of law school, he began to have intense panic attacks, wondering what would become of his life. He told The Los Angeles Times, "... I thought, well, my academic writing was always good. My grades were excellent. Maybe I had what it took to be a writer." By focusing on his strengths and what he is able to do, rather than what he’s not, Winkler has made a career for himself against all odds.
3. Octavia E. Butler
Butler is one of the best science fiction authors of all time, but few realize that she struggled with dyslexia her entire life. She was bullied growing up, using her vivid imagination to escape the abuse, and what started as a coping method eventually became the impetus for an incredible career.
Butler began writing short stories at age 10 and kept at it, publishing three series, two standalone novels and one collection of short stories before her death in 2006.
4. Christy Brown
Brown, an Irish author, suffered from cerebral palsy and was only able to write or type with the toes of his left foot. His memoir My Left Foot details his life with the disorder and became a literary sensation and 1989 film starring Daniel Day Lewis. Brown’s success is a prime example of not letting society’s preconceived notions about disabilities set you back. When he was born, doctors urged his parents to commit him to a convalescent hospital, but his parents decided to raise him at home. That decision gave Brown the opportunity to become the artist he would one day be.
5. Jean-Dominique Bauby
If you’ve seen the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you already know Bauby’s incredible story. If you haven’t, you need to reevaluate your priorities. Bauby was the editor of French ELLE, a prominent French journalist and a husband and father of two when, at age 43, he suffered a massive stroke.
He woke up 20 days later entirely speechless, only able to blink his left eyelid. This is what’s known as “locked-in syndrome.” Your mind is totally intact, but the majority of your body is paralyzed. Despite his dire condition, Bauby went on to write the memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking whenever the letter he was looking for was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again. The book was published in 1997, and Bauby tragically died just three days after, though not before giving us a lasting portrait of endurance.
6. John Hockenberry
Hockenberry sustained a spinal cord injury in a car crash when he was just 19, leaving him with paraplegia from the chest down. His disability has helped to define the topics he’s covered; his 1995 memoir is titled Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence, and he has written several nonfiction pieces on the state of health care. He was also one of the founding inductees to the Spinal Cord Injury Hall of Fame in 2005.
7. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
What was that? You thought writing Crime and Punishment was Dostoevsky's greatest feat? Try again! Dude wrote a 700-page book while suffering from a rare form of temporal lobe epilepsy, so if it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Dostoyevsky is so much better than you could ever hope to be. The Russian writer kept records of 102 epileptic seizures and used his experiences to create characters who also suffered from epilepsy. He also, of course, produced some of the finest literature the world has ever known.
8. Truman Capote
Fellow author John Knowles speculated that Capote’s epilepsy was of his own doing, saying that Capote “induced epilepsy himself by abusing his nervous system with drugs and booze.” Whether or not this is true remains to be determined (though, um, it’s definitely a shitty thing to say about your dead friend), but autopsy reports show that Capote did indeed suffer from epilepsy.
9. Jorge Luis Borges
After living a life as a librarian and professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, Borges became progressively blind from a genetic disorder, losing his sight completely at the age of 55. He never learned braille and was unable to read for the rest of his life, but the tragedy stops there. Borges continued to write and had a somewhat analytical response to his blindness: He told The New York Times Book Review, “I knew I would go blind, because my father, my paternal grandmother, my great-grandmother, they had all gone blind.”
Borges let his blindness inspire his writing, often commenting on the irony of losing his sight while being the director of the National Library. He also developed a logical approach to how his writing would change with his new disability. In the same Times interview, he states, “I have to dictate. I can’t write. And that’s why I have fallen back on classic forms of verse. I find that sonnets for example are very portable. You can walk all over a city and carry a sonnet inside your head, while you can hardly do that with free verse.”
10. John Milton
Milton is best known for Paradise Lost, but many people don’t realize that he had written the poem nearly two decades after going blind. It’s speculated that Milton lost his eyesight around 1651, 16 years before completing the epic poem. It’s a testament to his will that he did not let his blindness deter him, especially in a time before braille or any other technology to assist the visually impaired. Instead, Milton had his daughters read to him and dictated his writing to a transcriber. He detailed the experience of losing his sight in a sonnett aptly titled “On His Blindness.”
All the above writers are impressive, but is there one you find particularly inspiring? Or is there another example of an author who would not be held down that we failed to include? Let us know in the comments below.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
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