People with Disabilities Who Excel at What They Do

Thriving with a DisabilityA disability can appear to limit your horizons and reduce your opportunities–especially if the onset is sudden. You may wonder how you’ll continue to live a normal life or mourn the loss of how you used to be. Conversely, you may feel very capable and that only other people, well-meaning but naive, see you as limited. Whatever your perspective, these stories can remind you how your disability has made you a survivor, not a victim, regardless of where you are in treatment. Don’t forget to make the most of resources available to you, including potentially SSI and SSDI, and appreciate what you can do despite–or, because of–your disability.

Diseases: Multiple Sclerosis

Ann RomneyAnn Romney

Best known as the wife of Republican 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Ann Romney has been in the public eye since 2003 as the first lady of Massachusetts. Five children and 22 grandchildren still keep her occupied. But Mrs. Romney’ Multiple Sclerosis–its fatigue, numbness, and mental confusion–can be like”a Pac-Man … attacking,” as she described in an interview with Wall Street Journal. At times, “I felt I was being eaten away (and was) going to be left a shell,” she said.

Steroids helped calm symptoms the first few years, and now, mostly recovered, she is participating in a study at a Boston hospital to help other MS sufferers in the future. When fatigue plagues her, Mrs. Romney rides horseback or receives acupuncture or participates in reflexology. Mrs. Romeny manages to cope whenever a flare-up happens.  An example is during last election year’s March Super Tuesday elections, when she started stumbling and struggling with speech: “I slip out,” she said. “Mitt accommodates and I just make it work for me.” Mrs. Romney’s “making it work” for her has taught her more about others too; she said that MS has “left me with a heart that’s more open and compassionate for all the others who are suffering,”

Mental Disorders: Schizophrenia

Elyn R. Saks

Successful and schizophrenic. Yes, those words can go together, as law professor Elyn R. Saks of the University of California has proven.

It’s shocking even to her. Her initial prognosis belied the hope of success, in her own words in this 2013 New York Times article: “I would never live independently, hold a job, find a loving partner, or get married. My home would be a board-and-care facility, my days spent watching TV in a day room … I would work at menial jobs when my symptoms were quiet.”

Against all odds, Saks is a published author, mental health advocate, and professor at a prestigious university. How did she do it? Treatment firstly, she says. Medication, therapy, and the trial-and-error process that accompanies them is the first step to overcoming your disability. She and her colleagues studying schizophrenia have discovered that successful people with schizophrenia have “developed techniques to keep their schizophrenia at bay.” Thus, while she and other sufferers might still deal with delusions and other symptoms, they cope with them through self-talk, music, healthy diets, extra sleep, or religious practices.

Saks is insistent that while diagnoses cannot be argued with, prognoses can. “Conventional psychiatric thinking and its diagnostic categories say that people like me don’t exist. Either I don’t have schizophrenia (please tell that to the delusions crowding my mind), or I couldn’t have accomplished what I have (please tell that to U.S.C.’s committee on faculty affairs). But I do, and I have. And I have undertaken research with colleagues at U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. to show that I am not alone. There are others with schizophrenia and such active symptoms as delusions and hallucinations who have significant academic and professional achievements.” Saks discusses this further in her TED talk video below.


The above disabilities can, depending on the situation, qualify a person for SSI or SSDI because they are so debilitating. These Social Security programs are beneficial and essential at times. Other times, though, Social Security is a stepping stone to greater things. Having a disability doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do the things you want.


Top photo courtesy of: José Manuel Ríos Valiente

Photo of Ann Romney courtesy of: Gage Skidmore