20 Geniuses with Learning Disabilities

There are numerous examples of people with disabilities who go on to achieve greatness. These people apply their best efforts to accomplish greatness despite lacking abilities that others take for granted. So, with that in mind, we selected 20 geniuses with learning disabilities who applied their unusual talents in creativity, athleticism, visualization, and leadership.

How do we know these folks had disabilities — especially when some of them were born before that disability was named?

Biographers look for clues in the writings and letters to see if they can puzzle out and put a name to the disabilities of past geniuses. Some people on this list are in this category even though they not having been professionally diagnosed. But, they did experience challenges that make their achievements even more noteworthy.

1. Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin is known for having contributed to the foundational science of evolution, stating that all species of life descended over time from a common ancestor. Professor Michael Fitzgerald authored a book called In Autism and Creativity: Is There a Link Between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability?* He claims that Darwin had Asperger’s syndrome and that the condition explains his poor social skills and obsession with examining and explaining the complex topic of evolution.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: How Life Works is an Amazon Affiliate. When you use Amazon links in our articles to buy products, we may earn a commission but that in no way affects our editorial independence.

2. Agatha Christie

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Agatha Christie is one of the most published authors ever having sold over 2 billion copies of her novels and short stories. Her work has been translated into 103 languages. Agatha Christie had both dyslexia and dysgraphia making it difficult for her to write. To overcome her challenges, she would dictate her stories to a typist. 

3. Albert Einstein

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Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics. There are disagreements about whether or not Einstein had a learning disability. He did struggle in school, particularly with memorization. He also said that he found learning difficult.

Einstein had antisocial habits as a young man and remained socially eccentric. His trademark unkempt hair and perpetually dark wardrobe attest to his lack of concern with his appearance. He also said that he thought nonverbally. He would have to find words to express his ideas after he had breakthroughs. He excelled at spatial reasoning and imagination. People who would try to diagnose Einstein’s challenges fall somewhere between autism and dyslexia. Others like to believe that his difficulties were within the normal range of performance.

4. George Washington

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George Washington, the first President of the United States, is believed to have had dyslexia. He struggled with grammar and spelling throughout his life. But none of that stopped him from becoming the first US President, performing great acts, and being memorialized on the dollar bill and Mount Rushmore.

5. Leonardo da Vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci was a productive genius who excelled in multiple fields of science and literature. He had erratic spelling and practiced mirror writing with his left hand. While his writing is sometimes strange, his drawings were always detailed and well rendered.

It has been speculated that he had ADHD reflected by the fact that he started numerous projects and followed through on just a few. It might not be possible to know for sure if Leonardo da Vinci had a disability, but his genius is undisputed.

6. Michael Phelps

20 Geniuses with Learning Disabilities michael phelps
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Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time with 28 medals for swimming. He was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in the 6th grade. By that time he had already achieved national records in swimming. He has also said that he struggled with depression.

7. Helen Keller

20 Geniuses with Learning Disabilities
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Helen Keller was the first deaf and blind person to earn a college degree. She published 12 books and was a prolific speaker.

8. John Lennon

20 Geniuses with Learning Disabilities
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John Lennon may have been dyslexic. He excelled in art but had few other academic successes. John Lennon was not formally diagnosed, but biographer Albert Goldman thought Lennon had the symptoms of dyslexia. Despite these challenges, he went on to be one of the most commercially successful musicians ever.

9. Vincent van Gogh

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Vincent van Gogh is one of the symbols of genius in Western art. He was primarily self-taught. One of his many famous paintings is Starry Night, 1889.

It is speculated that van Gogh suffered from acute intermittent porphyria. This is a group of disorders caused by an overaccumulation of porphyrin which helps hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood. Acute porphyrias affect the nervous system and other organs. Cutaneous porphyrias primarily affect the skin.

Others believe that van Gogh was bipolar disorder or had epilepsy. 

10. Beethoven

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Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of the best known and recognized classical music including Symphony No. 9. He suffered severe hearing loss. There are many speculations about the causes of his hearing loss including several diseases. 

11. Frida Kahlo

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The renowned Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, known for her bold, provocative self-portraits, suffered from multiple disabilities. Kahlo was diagnosed with polio at the age of six. Her polio caused her right leg to be thinner than her left. When she was 18, a trolley accident left her with a broken spine, a broken pelvis, and a pierced abdomen. After the tragic incident, she suffered from pains in the affected areas for the rest of her life. Evidently, that didn’t stop her from being one of the most well-known artists of the 20th century.

12. Edgar Allan Poe

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The 19th century American writer whose dark poems and chilling short stories never fail to fill readers with fear and dread, is speculated to have suffered from epilepsy. Poe’s accounts of frequent unconsciousness, confusion, and paranoia have led medical professionals to believe the famous horror writer had an epileptic condition.

13. Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga’s talents stretch far beyond her singing-songwriting abilities, as she is not only a musician but also an actress, dancer, and fashion-designer. She has several awards under belt, including an Oscar and 9 Grammys. Only recently did she reveal her struggle with fibromyalgia, a disease that causes pain all over the body. Like others who suffer from the disorder, Gaga experiences extreme fatigue, increased sensitivity to pain, and muscle stiffness. Still, being the fabulous performer she is, she pushes through the pain.

14. Steven Spielberg

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The legendary film director Stephen Spielberg—known for masterminding classic films like Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost ArkJurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan—is dyslexic. He learned how to read two years after his classmates, which made him a target for bullying at school. Currently, Spielberg is arguably the most well-known director in Hollywood. Imagine what his childhood bullies think of him now!

15. Thomas Edison

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Before he developed over 1,000 patents and ingeniously utilized electricity for human-use, Thomas Edison was struck with a case of scarlet fever that left him almost entirely deaf. Clearly, the profuse inventor did not allow his poor hearing stop him from pioneering a new age of technology.

16. Stephen Hawking

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At the age of 21, as he was studying cosmology at the University of Cambridge, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In spite of this, the British theoretical physicist proceeded to uphold a revolutionary scientific career spanning over four decades. Out of the 15 books he wrote, most notable are his A Brief History of TimeThe Universe in a Nutshell, and A Briefer History of Time. Combined, all three books present Hawking’s theory of how the universe began.

17. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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As Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) victoriously led the US through World War II, he struggled with a more personal battle: polio. Before being elected president, FDR contracted polio in 1921. To help with mobility, he often used a wheelchair or braces that ran the length of his legs. Though FDR’s political opponents frequently cited his polio as evidence for being unfit to run the country, their efforts to thwart him from winning the White House were futile. FDR was one of the US’s most popular presidents, holding a total of four presidential terms.

18. Cher

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Academy award-winning and Grammy-winning singer Cher has dyslexia. Though she didn’t realize she was dyslexic at the time, Cher found school difficult. According to her autobiography, The First Time, she found reading and completing her homework on time to be a challenge.