Academic Diversity Activities: People with Disabilities


To experience a condition similar to what some people with learning disabilities deal with regularly.


15–20 minutes


One Reading Sheet for each student

Procedure—Part I

Hand out one Reading Sheet to each student. Ask for volunteers to read the sheet aloud in small sections. After students have struggled with this, read the passages from the answer sheet.


Ask students how trying to read this felt.

Tell students that this is an example of what reading might be like for people who have learning disabilities. People who have learning disabilities might have similar feelings to the ones you experienced.

Inform students that experts estimate that 6 to 10 percent of school-aged people in this country have learning disabilities. For people with learning disabilities, reading can be especially difficult, but that does not affect their intelligence. People with learning disabilities have average or above-average intelligence.

Procedure—Part II

Ask students which of the following people has/had a learning disability:

Tom Cruise
Walt Disney
Albert Einstein
George Patton

After they guess, read the description of each of these people. Emphasize that all of these people were very successful despite their learning disabilities.

Celebrities with Disabilities

Tom Cruise
He is a famous movie star. He learns his lines by listening to a tape because he suffers from dyslexia.

Walt Disney
He was slow in school work and did not have a successful school experience but later became a well-known movie producer and cartoonist.

Albert Einstein
As a child, he could not talk until the age of three. He did not learn to read until he was nine. His teachers considered him to be mentally slow, unsociable, and a dreamer. He failed the entrance examination for college. Ultimately, he developed the Theory of Relativity.

George Patton
When he was twelve years old he could not read, and he remained deficient in reading throughout his life. However, he could memorize entire lectures—this was how he got through school. He became a famous general during World War II.


  1. Should we judge people based on their learning disabilities?
  2. Can people with learning disabilities make important contributions to society?
  3. Can you think of other famous people who have disabilities?


Adapted from: Office of Affirmative Action (1996). Take a Walk in My Shoes. Oakland: Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California.

Penn State School of Agricultural Sciences

Answer Sheet for “Reading”


It is difficult to learn to read when the words don’t stand still. Can you imagine what it is like to read when the words and letters move up and down on the page? Reading is not my favorite school activity. It helps to use my finger or a ruler to keep my place so I can read.


Changes are all around us.
Changes are a part of life.
Changes are a part of growing.

Just look how a sapling becomes a tree.
And in the fall, the leaves turn all different colors.

Red, gold, amber, brown, orange, and yellow.

Even though they’re different colors,
They are all part of one tree,
And beautiful together.

And so, too, it is with people.

We are born, and we grow into adults
Who are different, but we are all part of the same family. If only we could just blend harmoniously
Like the leaves on the tree.
Well, there’s still time for change.

—Jane Brucker

Famous People with Disabilities

Ludwig Van Beethoven, 1770–1827
Famous German composer and considered one of the greatest musicians of all times

The last 30 years of his life were shaped by a series of personal crises, the first of which was the onset of deafness.

Cher, 1946–
American singer and Academy Award–winning actress and director.


Albert Einstein, 1879–1955
Mathematician and physicist; he developed the Theory of Relativity

He had a learning disability and did not speak until the age of three. He had a difficult time doing math in school and expressing himself through writing.

Whoopee Goldberg, 1949–
Oscar and Golden Globe Award–winning actress


Bruce Jenner, 1949–
1976 Olympic Gold Metal Decathlon Champion


Helen Keller, 1880–1968
Blind and deaf

Juliette Gordon Law, 1860–1927
She had severe hearing loss and was deaf by the time she founded the Girl Scouts of America.

Marlee Matlin, 1965–
1987 Academy Award winner—Best Actress for role in Children of a Lesser God

She was the first hearing-impaired actress to win an Oscar.

John Milton, 1608–1674
English author and poet who wrote some of the greatest and longest poems—“Paradise Lost,” “Paradise Regained,” and “Samson Agonestes”—in his head and dictated them to his daughter.

He went completely blind in 1641.

George Patton, 1885–1945
U.S. General

Learning disabled. Did not learn to read until he was twelve years old; yet, he had learned to read military topographic maps by age seven.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1882–1945
U.S. President four times

Paralyzed by polio

Harriet Tubman, 1820(?)–1913
Abolitionist and rescuer of hundreds of slaves on the Underground Railroad. As a child, she was struck by an overseer. The blow fractured her skull and resulted in narcolepsy.

George Washington, 1732–1799
First U.S. President

He had a learning disability and could barely write; also had very poor grammar skills.

Woodrow Wilson, 1856–1924
U.S. President from 1913 to 1921; also governor, author, professor, and world statesman

Severely dyslexic

People with Disabilities (PDF)

Credit: Penn State School of Agricultural Sciences