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Disabled People on Desert Island Discs

The BBC's 'Desert Island Discs' is a touchstone in British culture. How often does it center disabled voices?

Reading time: 8–13 minutes

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

I'll briefly introduce the Desert Island Discs format and how I made this list. If you prefer, you can jump straight to the list

About 20 years ago, I discovered to Desert Island Discs in an English class. The BBC radio programme has aired for over 80 years, interviewing over 3000 'castaways'.

Castaways are well-known, at least in their own field. In a 30-45 minute episode, they answer questions about their life and work. At the same time, they introduce;

  • eight pieces of music,
  • a book
  • a luxury item

which they'd take if they were cast away onto a desert island.

Alice Wong's memoir 'Year of the Tiger', introduced me to disability representation on the radio. Her original article Diversifying Radio With Disabled Voices is an excellent read. It focuses on how radio production often fails to include people with disabilities.

Desert Island Discs has a long, rich, history and an online archive. I set out to see if there are some meaningful stories from the disabled community in their archive.

The Archive

A spreadsheet of all the castaways already exists and is available on GitHub. I used the version linked from the README.md file, as it includes Wikipedia links. One key limitation is that this goes up to the end of 2021.

As a British program, the most castaways are British people. They've also interviewed plenty of Americans and 66 nationalities appear in the spreadsheet.

I started searching names I know from this list. I found Stephen Hawking, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Ade Adepitan. In total, I found about 10 famous disabled people from entertainment and sport.

But I'm not an expert on "every disabled person for the last 80 years". I'm liable to miss some, so I needed something more methodical.


In this section, I'll summarize what I did. If you prefer to dive into the code, there's a Jupyter Notebook available on GitHub.

The spreadsheet includes Wikipedia URLs and there's a Python library for parsing Wikipedia. I combined all the unique categories which the Wikipedia articles about the castaways are in. The categories appear at the bottom of the article on desktop. They include things like "1993 deaths" and "Scottish anthropologists".

There were around 18 000, but I sorted these by hand. It was quick to remove all that started with a year, for example. The aim was to select those that would specifically refer to a possible disability.

'Artists with disabilities' was the first. Plenty started 'Paralympic medalists...'.

Many categories start 'People with...' then a diagnosis. 'Paraplegia', 'Polio' and 'Narcolepsy' are on the list.

I didn't include any of the diagnosis-specific categories, except 'People with Asperger syndrome'. This was after a quick review of typical articles in each category. Those in these categories often got diagnosed after their appearance on Desert Island Discs. When someone is known for their disability, they are also in a category like 'Actors with disabilities'.


I ended up with 67 categories.

Cross-referencing them with the castaways gives 40 results. A few are interviewed twice.

The following are based on the first lines of their Wikipedia articles, which I've edited and condensed for clarify. I've also added a coupe of words about their disability, based on what Wikipedia says, if this isn't clear from the first sentence. I can't be sure that these are the preferred ways to describe them and some might be outdated terms.

I've also removed three who were interviewed, then later became disabled, Tristan Jones, Richard Leakey and Christopher Reeve, according to their Wikipedia articles.

There are also two results I spotted which are more recent than the data source I used:

Listening to the episodes even works outside the UK, which is an unusual bonus.


Since this is Wikipedia, we can't be certain all of them would describe themselves as disabled, or that the information is correct. A Wikipedia editor has categorized them that way, but I recommend looking for original sources before quoting any of these. The Wikipedia article is a good starting point to learn more about them.

I'm sure that not all will talk about their experiences of disability either, and I haven't listened to them all yet.

I'm also pretty sure that, out of over 3000 episodes, there are some disabled people who aren't described as such by Wikipedia, or in public at all.