The first time I was asked about famous people in a wheelchair, I was hard pressed to come up with any names. That failure was mine, however, because some of the greatest dignitaries on the world stage live their lives in a wheelchair. I had simply never thought about it. I thought it might be fun to run through a partial list.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: FDR was the 32nd President of the United States and arguably the most important President of the twentieth century. He certainly was in office longer than any other in our history. He was first elected in 1932 shortly after the Great Depression, and was then reelected three more times. He guided us through the greatest depression of our history, was one of the three most prominent leaders of WWII on the winning side along with Churchill and Stalin, and is responsible for the implementation of Social Security. He contracted polio in 1921 and was paralyzed from the waist down as a result. This, of course, didn’t stop him, and he became one of the most prominent figures of the century.
Stephen Hawking: Hawking is one of the most famous and revered physicists and mathematicians or our age, and he has been in a wheelchair for the past forty years. He has defied numbers because he was told he would not live to see his 23rd birthday. Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is a motor neuron disease that results in the gradual and complete deteriorate of his muscle. He can no longer sit up, hold his head up, or move his hands,, but he sure can think. He wrote a best seller called “A Brief History of Time,” which tried to explain his theories of time and physics without using math.
Teddy Pendergrass, Sr.: Teddy was a drummer for the Cadillacs, which later merged with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. He later became the lead singer for the group jumping from the rear of the stage to become its foremost figure. In 1982, Pendergrass severed his spine in an auto accident and was paralyzed from the waist down. After numerous surgeries and a lengthy rehab, he got back to the studio and recorded the album “Love Language,” which included a duet with the then unknown Whitney Houston.
Christopher Reeves: Perhaps best known for his role as Superman in four films, Reeves was an actor, producer, and director. Reeves was paralyzed in 1995 after being thrown from a horse in an equestrian event. He went on to lobby and raise funds for spinal cord research and became Chairman of the American Paralysis Association and Vice Chairman on the National Organization on Disability. He also continued his career primarily as a director at the same time. He died at 52 from cardiac arrest leaving behind the legacy of doing more than any other person to raise awareness about persons with disabilities.
Itzhak Perlman: An Israeli-American, Perlman was one of the most distinguished violinists and conductors of the twentieth century. He contracted polio as a youngster but was able to walk for a long time using crutches. He became wheelchair bound later in life but continued his remarkable performances in the largest performing halls in the world. Critics often say his remarkable skills were matched by the joy he expressed in playing the violin.
Dwight Owens: Okay, so this one’s not so famous. But like these giants before me, I am doing the best I can to make my life count. I and hundreds of thousands like me live our lives as fully as possible and embrace each day as a gift. And I don’t feel the least bit disabled. I just do things a little more slowly than most people. I think there are many more adventures for me in the future, and I look forward to each of them.