9 Wildly Successful People Who Also Have a Disability
BY Lauren Hamer
September 19, 2017

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 the most famous stars and successful people have “made it” with a disability in tow. Sometimes a disability is described 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? Read on to find out.

These nine 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

Swedish businessman Ingvar Kamprad has dyslexia. | Wikimedia Commons

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.

You’ve probably heard of our next successful billionaire, and his corporation that owns more than 400 companies…


2. Richard Branson: Business mogul

Business mogul Richard Branson has learning disabilities. | AFP/Getty Images

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.


3. Penelope Trunk: Founder of Brazen Careerist and Quistic

Entrepreneur Penelope Truck was diagnosed with Asperger’s. | penelopetrunk.com/Wikimedia Commons

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.


4. Howie Mandel: Comedian and TV host

Howie Mandel judges on America’s Got Talent. | NBC

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.

Our next success story can be found on the hit show, Shark Tank…


5. Barbara Corcoran: Real-estate mogul and investor

Billionaire Barbara Corcoran, second from left, is an investor on Shark Tank. | ABC

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.


6. Dan Aykroyd: Actor and comedian

Actor Dan Aykroyd’s inspiration for Ghostbusters came from his Asperger’s. | Columbia Pictures Corporation via IMDb

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.


7. Paul Orfalea: Founder of FedEx Office (Kinko’s)

Paul Orfalea founded copy retailer Kinko’s, now FedEx Office. | Wikimedia Commons

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.”


8. Stephen Hawking: Physicist

Physicist Stephen Hawking has ALS. | Paramount Television

Stephen Hawking has 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. At 73, he is still going strong, claiming that being able to continue his work as a theoretical physicist helped him survive. Since 1985, he has been speaking with his trademark computer system, operating it with his cheek.


9. Ralph Braun: Creator of accessible minivans

An example of a BraunAbility handicap-accessible van | Mr. Choppers/Wikimedia Commons

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.”



Published: September 12, 2017

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