Francesca Martinez, an English actress, writer, and comedian, was born in 1978 in the United Kingdom. She has cerebral palsy, but prefers to describe herself as “wobbly.” Following her debut as an actress on the television series Grange Hill as Rachel Burns, she gained public attention in 1994. She has also ventured into stand-up comedy, and since performed at the Edinburgh Festival, Melbourne Comedy Festival, and the Just For Laughs Festival.
Martinez became the first female comic to win the prestigious Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award in 2000. In addition to her appearances in stand-up comedy performances and TV shows, she has also published a book, What The **** Is Normal?!, in 2014, which has been nominated for two national book awards. In her book, she explores the toxicity of societal beauty standards for women, particularly in the context of being disabled.
Martinez is a disability advocate through her roles as a speaker and campaigner, delivering motivational speeches to businesses, organizations, and charities. She was nominated for the Motivator of the Year Award in 2005 and awarded the Public Affairs Achiever (2013), recognized as a Top Ten Game Changer in BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Power List (2014) and Hero of the Year in the European Diversity Awards. She is a patron of several charity organizations such as Evenbreak, which “helps pair disabled people with inclusive employers.” An activist for governmental reform, she launched War on Welfare (WOW), calling for an end to disability benefit cuts, and secured the first parliamentary debate in the UK for disabled people by disabled people.
Jess Thom, born in 1980, is best known as a British comedian and public speaker. She was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome in her early twenties, a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable and repetitive movements or sounds, such as involuntarily blinking eyes or shrugging shoulders. She is also a wheelchair user. She gained recognition for her appearance in Russell Howard’s Good News in 2015 and has since appeared in numerous performances.
A writer, artist, and activist, Thom co-founded Touretteshero in 2010, turning her tics into “a source of imaginative creativity.” Touretteshero is an online space to celebrate “the humor and creativity of Tourettes [by] reclaiming the most frequently misunderstood syndrome on the planet.” In addition to featuring articles and videos, its debut production, Backstage in Biscuit Land, was highly lauded by critics and the public. In addition, Thom has appeared on numerous radio and television programs such as The Late Late Show, This Morning, and Fry’s Planet Word. She was a TED speaker who talked about the misconceptions of Tourette’s Syndrome and the creative potential of tics.
Despite facing challenges and discrimination, Thom remains an outspoken advocate for disability rights. In particular, her social justice work draws attention to the “environmental and social barriers that prevent inclusion.” She views her Tourette’s as a source of creativity, her wheelchair as a source of freedom, and her disability as not a byproduct of her body but her inaccessible environment, dismantling the medical model of disability.
Stella Young was born in Australia in 1982 with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone diseases. This causes the body’s bones to break easily due to a genetic disorder. Young used a wheelchair for most of her life.
She was a host for No Limits, a disability culture television program. Additionally, she served as an editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s online magazine Ramp Up and directed a one-woman show, Tales from the Crip, which won the Best Newcomer award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2014. What established her as a prominent “titan of contemporary disability activism” was her 2014 TEDxSydney Talk, “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.” She introduced the idea of “inspiration porn” to an international audience, which is the stigma of viewing disabled people as living, breathing feel-good memes for abled people.
Young was a wise and confident changemaker, and her passing in 2014 did not thwart her legacy from inspiring millions of people worldwide. In 2017, was inducted onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women for her role as a "journalist, comedian, feminist and fierce disability activist."
Alice Wong was born in 1974 in Indianapolis as a second-generation Hong Kong immigrant. She was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that causes weakness in muscles used for movement due to a loss in motor neurons. She became unable to walk around the age of eight and currently is a wheelchair and BPAP machine user.
Being the only Chinese-American and disabled student in classroom settings in her childhood, Wong had to grapple with systemic racism and ostracism. Despite her traumatic past, she advocates for access and representation for disabled people regardless of background as an activist and writer. Notably, she is the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, an “online community that fosters and amplifies disability media and culture.” She was set on offering opportunities for disabled communities to “record their own oral histories” and the Disability Visibility Project has since become a global platform for disabled people to tell their own stories.
Wong was the vice-chairperson for UCSF’s Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Disability Issues, fighting for accommodations on campus such as text telephones for the hearing-impaired and wheelchair-accessible buttons in elevators. She was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on Disability and received the Paul G. Hearne Leadership Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities and Indiana University Bicentennial Medal. Her memoir, Year of the Tiger, which explores her disabled and Asian-American identities will be out this year.
Maya Angelou was born in April 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, A lesser-known fact is that she grew up with a hidden disability, As a child, she was abused and sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, which left her with selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that mutes a child due to first-hand physical and psychological trauma. This left her completely silent for five years.
Despite being a woman with a disability, Angelou made history as one of the most influential black women who turned her hardships into lasting life lessons. She is an “award-winning author, poet, civil rights activist, college professor, and screenwriter” who has been recognized widely for her literary works, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Still I Rise. She documents her life experiences of living in 20th century America where segregation and the Jim Crow laws were widely accepted. Notably, she has received awards such as two NAACP image awards for her films, a Pulitzer award, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom which was awarded by President Barack Obama.
After passing away in 2014, Angelou remains a widely remembered historical figure. She provides hope and inspiration for black women, as well as the disabled community, to rise above the status quo through storytelling and activism.