Inspirational Offscreen Struggles: 15 Actors Who Overcame Their Disabilities

It’s difficult to measure with words the difficulties faced by people living with a disability. Whether or not their condition is mental or physical, day-to-day life can often result in a series of struggles. Though it’s easy to dismiss glorifying celebrity actors superficially, it is important we recognize the achievements of those who have overcome disabilities to gain onscreen acclaim. With this in mind, here are 15 actors who have overcome various physical and mental disabilities and become all the more successful because of it.

Dan Aykroyd

Photo: Owen Beiny/

In an NPR interview, Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters star Dan Aykroyd revealed he was treated for Tourette’s Syndrome as a youth. During this period he was also diagnosed as having mild Asperger’s, though the symptoms would subside as he got older.

Nicholas Brendon

Photo: Dominic Chan/

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and recurring Criminal Minds actor Nicholas Brendon began acting as a way to overcome a stuttering problem. Though he’s dropped the stutter since, he has been quoted in an interview saying “Every day I still have to remind myself to slow down and concentrate.” He remains an honorary chairperson of the Stuttering Foundation of America.

Marlee Matlin

Photo: Nikki Nelson/

Marlee Matlin is the first and, so far, only deaf woman to ever win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The film that won her the award, Children of a Lesser God (1986), detailed a burgeoning romantic relationship between two employees at a school for the deaf.

Sarah Michelle Gellar

Photo: Ivan Nikolov/

Another Buffy star, Sarah Michelle Gellar has admitted in interviews that she continues to live with scoliosis, which she describes as “major.” The actress admits to treating discomfort with Pilates and refuses to let the visibility of the disease stop her from sporting backless dresses at gala and red carpet events.

Keira Knightley

Photo: Nikki Nelson/

Keira Knightley struggled with dyslexia as a child, which in turn affected her self-esteem. Rather than let it stop her, however, the actress used the bullying she received from her peers as motivation to work hard and overcome the disorder.

Tom Cruise


Tom Cruise has also discussed growing up dyslexic, labeling his childhood as “functionally illiterate.” He would graduate high school and begin his acting career struggling with the disease, only to overcome it as an adult through sheer determination.

Bruce Willis


Like Brendon, Bruce Willis struggled with a stuttering speech impediment as a child. He would turn to acting in his youth as a means of gaining control over the disorder. Participating in theater programs forced him to face his impediment head-on and helped him overcome it.

Bruce Payne


Many may remember the “Brit Pack,” a group of British actors popular during the 1980s that included Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, and the thespian in question, Bruce Payne. Before he was a character actor, Payne was a teenager struggling with Spina Bifida. He would have to have surgery for it at the age of 16 that left him hospitalized for over six months. Payne would begin his acting career after his recovery.

Michael J. Fox

Photo: Ivan Nikolov/

While enjoying success as one of the biggest stars in the world, Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with early on-set Parkinson’s disease. Following the diagnosis, Fox fell into depression and turned to drinking heavily, attempting to keep the disease secret. In 1998, he dried up and came forward to become a major advocate for Parkinson’s research. He began The Michael J. Fox foundation, which is committed to furthering research for a cure. He’s also continued his acting career, both in voice-over work and in occasional television guest appearances.

Robert David Hall

Photo: FayesVision/

CSI star Robert David Hall had both of his legs amputated following a car accident in 1978. Since then he’s been using prosthetic limbs to get around and remains one of the most successful physically disabled actors working today.

RJ Mitte

Photo: Nikki Nelson/

Much like his character on AMC’s Breaking Bad, RJ Mitte has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Upon pursuing his acting career, Mitte dedicated himself to playing characters that could potentially enlighten viewers about the disease. As Walter Jr. on Breaking Bad, he does just that. When not acting, Mitte is also a campaign spokesman for “Inclusion in the Arts and Media of Performers With Disabilities (I AM PWD),” a group that employs creative persons living with disabilities.

Leonardo Dicaprio

Photo: Ian Wilson/

Leonardo DiCaprio has been very open about managing his obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In a 2008 interview, he admitted to regularly having to fight the urge to walk back and forth through doors when entering rooms and also struggles not to step on every chewing gum stain he finds when walking outside. DiCaprio would use his disorder to play a famous person who lost his own grasp on OCD, Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He earned an Academy Award nomination for his efforts.

Will Smith

Photo: Dominic Chan/

In a Rolling Stone article, Will Smith expressed his belief he suffered from some learning disabilities as a child, which he would overcompensate for with a “class clown” personality. He has also admitted to struggling with dyslexia, which he would overcome as an adult through sheer work ethic.

David Duchovny

Photo: Devon Duke/

David Duchovny lost sight in one eye as a teenager upon sustaining an injury during a basketball game. The injury would not stop him for pursuing an academic career at Yale, which he would eventually abandon to pursue acting. The X-Files actor has been outspoken about urging people to take vision care seriously.

Billy Bob Thornton

Photo: WENN

The Academy Award winning Thornton has been very open about suffering from OCD. Among his symptoms are a documented fear of antique furniture and silverware. He’s therapeutically worked these details into several of his films, projecting them onto Dwight Yoakam’s character in the Thornton-directed Sling Blade as well as using them for his own character in Bandits.

  • Miss D

    Interesting article. However, dyslexia is not a disease, it is a reading disorder (Slide 6).

  • Dirk Johnson

    it’s “early onset,” not “early on-set.” not the same as a hyphenated instance of being on the movie set early.

  • William

    Too bad Bruce Willis couldn’t overcome his douchebaggery.

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