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.
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.
- Eric Sykes (1957) - An English radio, stage, television and film writer, comedian, actor, and director whose performing career spanned more than 50 years. He became deaf as an adult. Eric Sykes on Wikipedia, Eric Sykes on Desert Island Discs in 1957
- Wee Georgie Wood (1961) - A British comic entertainer and actor who appeared in films, plays and music hall revues. He had a form of dwarfism. Wee Georgie Wood on Wikipedia, Wee Georgie Wood on Desert Island Discs
- George Shearing (1962) - A British jazz pianist who for many years led a popular jazz group that recorded for Discovery Records, MGM Records and Capitol Records. He was in an all-blind band. George Shearing on Wikipedia, George Shearing on Desert Island Discs
- Michael Flanders (1965) - An English actor, broadcaster, and writer and performer of comic songs. He used a wheelchair due to polio. Michael Flanders on Wikipedia, Michael Flanders on Desert Island Discs
- David Hockney (1972) - An English painter, draftsman, printmaker, stage designer, and photographer. He uses hearing aids and has appeared on a list of deaf artists. David Hockney on Wikipedia, David Hockney on Desert Island Discs
- Michael Ansell (1973) - A soldier, show jumping rider, polo player, and horse show administrator. He became blind in the army. Michael Ansell on Wikipedia, Michael Ansell on Desert Island Discs
- Barry Humphries (1973) - An Australian comedian, actor, author and satirist. He's in the 'Actors with Autism' and 'Actors with Asperger Syndrome' categories, but this isn't mentioned in the Wikipedia article. Barry Humphries on Wikipedia, Barry Humphries on Desert Island Discs in 1973
- Itzhak Perlman (1978) - An Israeli-American violinist widely considered one of the greatest violinists in the world. He uses crutches and a scooter due to polio. Itzhak Perlman on Wikipedia, Itzhak Perlman on Desert Island Discs
- David Scott Blackhall (1980) - A radio personality, author and poet. He talked extensively about his experiences as a blind person. David Scott Blackhall on Wikipedia, David Scott Blackhall on Desert Island Discs
- Douglas Bader (1981) - A Royal Air Force flying ace during the Second World War. His legs were amputated in 1931. Douglas Bader on Wikipedia, Douglas Bader on Desert Island Discs
- Rosemary Sutcliff (1983) - An English novelist best known for children's books, especially historical fiction and retellings of myths and legends. She used a wheelchair due to Still's diseae. Rosemary Sutcliff on Wikipedia, Rosemary Sutcliff on Desert Island Discs
- Ved Mehta (1984) - An Indian-born writer who lived and worked mainly in the United States. He was blind from an early age. Ved Mehta on Wikipedia, Ved Mehta on Desert Island Discs
- Anthony Hopkins (1985) - A Welsh actor, director, and producer. In 2017 he stated that he had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Anthony Hopkins on Wikipedia, Anthony Hopkins on Desert Island Discs
- Bobby Robson (1986) - An English footballer and football manager. He was described as partially deaf. Bobby Robson on Wikipedia, Bobby Robson on Desert Island Discs in 1986
- Stephanie Beacham (1988) - An English television, film, radio and theatre actress. She is described as partially deaf. Stephanie Beacham on Wikipedia, Stephanie Beacham on Desert Island Discs
- David Blunkett (1990) - A British Labour Party politician who has been a Member of the House of Lords since 2015, and was Home Secretary in Tony Blair's government. He has been blind since birth. David Blunkett on Wikipedia, David Blunkett on Desert Island Discs
- Sue Townsend (1991) - An English writer and humorist whose work encompasses novels, plays and works of journalism. She is described as having sight and mobility problems and used a wheelchair due to chronic illness. Sue Townsend on Wikipedia, Sue Townsend on Desert Island Discs
- Stephen Hawking (1992) - An English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who, at the time of his death, was director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. He used a powered wheelchair and speech-generating device due to a form of motor neuron disease. Stephen Hawking on Wikipedia, Stephen Hawking on Desert Island Discs
- Evelyn Glennie (1993) - A Scottish percussionist. She has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. Evelyn Glennie on Wikipedia, Evelyn Glennie on Desert Island Discs
- Jack Ashley, Baron Ashley of Stoke (1993) - A British politician. He was the UK's first profoundly deaf member of parliament and was a disability campaigner. Jack Ashley, Baron Ashley of Stoke on Wikipedia, Jack Ashley, Baron Ashley of Stoke on Desert Island Discs
- Oliver Sacks (1994) - A British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and writer. He was described as having prosopagnosia, or face blindness, and severe shyness, which he described as "a disease". Oliver Sacks on Wikipedia, Oliver Sacks on Desert Island Discs
- John Wilson (1995) - A blind British public health advocate, best known for working to prevent blindness in developing countries in Africa and South and South East Asia. John Wilson (blind activist) on Wikipedia, John Wilson on Desert Island Discs
- Gordon Brown (1996) - A British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Labour Party from 2007 to 2010. He is blind in one eye and talked about the vision in the other eye being saved by experimental surgery. Gordon Brown on Wikipedia, Gordon Brown on Desert Island Discs
- Eric Sykes (1997) - An English radio, stage, television and film writer, comedian, actor, and director whose performing career spanned more than 50 years. He became deaf as an adult. Eric Sykes on Wikipedia, Eric Sykes on Desert Island Discs in 1997
- Ian Dury (2000) - A British singer, songwriter and actor who rose to fame during the late 1970s, during the punk and new wave era of rock music. Partially paralyzed due to polio, his song 'Spasticus Autisticus' became a "war cry" for the disability rights movement in the 1980s, and was featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic games. Ian Dury on Wikipedia, Ian Dury on Desert Island Discs
- Tanni Grey-Thompson (2001) - A Welsh life peeress, television presenter and former wheelchair racer. One of the UK's top performing Paralympic athletes, she won 16 Paralympic medals and 13 world championship medals. Tanni Grey-Thompson on Wikipedia, Tanni Grey-Thompson on Desert Island Discs
- Bobby Robson (2004) - An English footballer and football manager. He was described as partially deaf. Bobby Robson on Wikipedia, Bobby Robson on Desert Island Discs in 2004
- Frank Gardner (journalist) (2005) - A British journalist, author and retired British Army Reserve officer. He is partially paralyzed after an attack by al-Qaida gunmen and uses a wheelchair. Frank Gardner (journalist) on Wikipedia, Frank Gardner (journalist) on Desert Island Discs
- Thomas Quasthoff (2009) - A German bass-baritone. He is described as having birth defects caused by thalidomide. Thomas Quasthoff on Wikipedia, Thomas Quasthoff on Desert Island Discs
- Barry Humphries (2009) - An Australian comedian, actor, author and satirist. He's in the 'Actors with Autism' and 'Actors with Asperger Syndrome' categories, but this isn't mentioned in the Wikipedia article. Barry Humphries on Wikipedia, Barry Humphries on Desert Island Discs in 2009
- Jane Campbell, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton (2012) - A British disability rights campaigner and a life peer in the House of Lords. She uses a powered wheelchair due to spinal muscular atrophy. Jane Campbell, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton on Wikipedia, Jane Campbell, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton on Desert Island Discs
- Ade Adepitan (2012) - A Nigerian-born British television presenter and wheelchair basketball player. Ade Adepitan on Wikipedia, Ade Adepitan on Desert Island Discs
- Chris Packham (2013) - An English naturalist, nature photographer, television presenter and author, best known for his television work including the CBBC children's nature series The Really Wild Show from 1986 to 1995. He has talked extensively about his experience with Asperger syndrome. Chris Packham on Wikipedia, Chris Packham on Desert Island Discs
- Yinka Shonibare (2016) - A British-Nigerian artist living in the United Kingdom. He uses a powered wheelchair due to transverse myelitis. Yinka Shonibare on Wikipedia, Yinka Shonibare on Desert Island Discs
- Warwick Davis (2016) - An English actor and television presenter. He has a form of dwarfism and is 107cm (3ft 6in) tall. Warwick Davis on Wikipedia, Warwick Davis on Desert Island Discs
- Philip Craven (2016) - An English sports administrator, former Paralympic wheelchair basketball player, swimmer and track and field athlete. Philip Craven on Wikipedia, Philip Craven on Desert Island Discs
- Sinéad Burke (2020) - An Irish writer, academic and disability activist, popular for her TED talk 'Why design should include everyone'. She describes herself as a "little person". Sinéad Burke on Wikipedia, Sinéad Burke on Desert Island Discs
There are also two results I spotted which are more recent than the data source I used:
- Ellie Simmonds (2022) - A British former Paralympian swimmer who competed in S6 events. She has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. Ellie Simmonds on Wikipedia, Ellie Simmonds on Desert Island Discs
- Liz Carr (2023) - An English actress, comedian, broadcaster and international disability rights activist. She uses a wheelchair due to arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. Liz Carr on Wikipedia, Liz Carr on Desert Island Discs
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.