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Ten Awe-inspiring Women with Disabilities

An internationally-recognized fashion designer. An award winning actress. The first American flapper. There are many awe-inspiring women with disabilities, and to cap off Women’s History Month, we’ve compiled a list of ten trailblazers—past and present—who have etched their names into history books.

10. Àngela Bachiller is a Spanish city councillor for Valladolid and a member of the People’s Party. Elected in 2013, Bachiller is Spain’s first city councillor with Down syndrome. Mayor Francisco Javier León de la Riva described her as "an example of strength and of someone overcoming obstacles.”

9. The first internationally-recognized fashion designer with Down syndrome, Isabella Springmuhl Tejada had her designs showcased during London Fashion Week in 2016. This led to her being featured in the BBC’s 100 Women list, an annual collection of the most inspirational and influential women in the world, alongside the likes of Alicia Keys, Simone Biles, and Zoleka Mandela.

8. Whoopi Goldberg is a prominent actor, comedian, author, and television personality. A recipient of many awards and honors, she is one of only a few entertainers to have won an Emmy Award, a Grammy Award, an Academy Award, and a Tony Award. She accomplished this all despite suffering from severe anxiety, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

7. Dubbed by her husband, famous author F. Scott Fitzgerald, as "the first American flapper," Zelda Fitzgerald was a novelist, painter, and socialite. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Zelda spent most of the 1930s and 1940s hospitalized. During this time, she kept herself creatively occupied by writing and painting. Her novel Save Me the Waltz, a semi-autobiographical account of her life and marriage, is the subject of countless scholarly articles and remains widely read. 

6. Mary Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, and an autism spokesperson. Grandin is one of the first individuals on autism spectrum to document the insights she gained from her personal experience of autism. She is also known for inventing the “Hug Box”—a device to calm those on the autism spectrum. In the 2010 Time 100, an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, she was named among those in the "Heroes" category. In 2010, HBO produced an Emmy Award winning movie about her life, and in 2016, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

5. Nina Simone was a renowned musician and civil rights activist. Her music spanned a broad range of musical styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. Recording more than forty albums, she has received four career Grammy Award nominations—two during her lifetime and two posthumously—and in 2018, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s, after suffering from extreme mood swings and depression throughout her career. 

4. Madeline Stuart is an Australian supermodel with Down syndrome. Stuart has appeared on the New York Fashion Week catwalk, and has walked Paris fashion week, London fashion week, Runway Dubai, Russian fashion week, Mercedes Benz fashion week China, and many more. She is a powerful advocate for inclusiveness and diversity in modeling, with a huge social media following. She’s also been profiled in both Vogue & Forbes, and has completed the Special Olympics triathlon three times.

3. In addition to winning two gold medals in the Special Olympics, Karen Gaffney was the first person with Down syndrome to complete the English Channel relay race. Since crossing the channel, she has also conquered the Boston Harbor, the San Francisco bay, Lake Champlain, the Dun Laoghaire Harbor, and the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. In 2007, she was the focus of the Documentary Crossing Tahoe: A Swimmer’s Dream.

2. Emily Dickinson is arguably one of America’s foremost poets. Dickinson suffered from manic-depression and spent the majority of her life in seclusion, yet was able to produce over eighteen hundred poems. Although she was a prolific writer, only ten of her poems were published during her lifetime, and those were heavily edited. The breadth of her work became public after her death and is a staple of the American literary canon. She is best known for her eccentric personality and her frequent themes of death and mortality. Scholars and readers alike have long held a fascination with her unusual life.

1. Helen Keller was a prolific author, political activist, lecturer, and the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. The story of Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was made famous by Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life, and its adaptations for film and stage, The Miracle Worker. As member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women's suffrage, labor rights, socialism, antimilitarism, and other similar causes. She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1971 and was one of twelve inaugural inductees to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame on June 8, 2015.