It often seems like the stars lead carefree lives, but they’re more susceptible to human foibles than you might think. Despite the associated shame, learning disabilities are an extremely common occurrence all over the world, and Hollywood is no exception. A reported 2.4 million students have been diagnosed with some form of learning disability.
This list of A-List actors is but a handful of the stars that refused to let a learning disability keep them from realizing their dreams. Among the conditions represented here are Dyslexia (affecting reading, writing, and information processing), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (inhibiting focus and behavior control), and Dyspraxia (causing coordination and language problems).
Despite their prevalence, learning disabilities can feel insurmountable. The lack of support can cause feelings of inadequacy, and hopelessness. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the help of organizations, tutors, and sometimes in-school resources, LD children can become thriving adults.
In fact, many of these actors credit their brain chemistry for their success. Some even refer to their diagnoses as “a gift”. Perhaps these so-called disabilities only seem that way because society, and particularly the education system, isn’t set up to deal with the brains of these special thinkers.
Here are 18 Actors You Didn't Know Overcame Learning Disabilities
18 Keira Knightley – Dyslexia
One of the hardest skills to learn as a dyslexic is also a crucial one. "I remember going in for an audition when I was 8, and it was the most excruciating experience because I couldn't read my lines,” Knightley recalls. She was diagnosed at age 6, and the adversity she experienced toughened her up, preparing her for the cutthroat atmosphere of the entertainment industry. She knew what she wanted and she wasn’t going to let anything hold her back.
Today, the acclaimed actress is happy to report that dyslexia is no longer a factor in her day-to-day. “My desire to act was my driving force. I got really good help from some amazing teachers and my mother and father worked tirelessly with me, so by the time I was 11 I had kind of overcome the dyslexia and now it's not really a problem. I don't notice it anymore.”
17 Justin Timberlake – OCD & ADD
Multifaceted performer Justin Timberlake was diagnosed with a double whammy of OCD and ADD. Because of his OCD, he feels an intense need to have things lined up correctly, reportedly spending hours straightening objects around his home. He also only allows certain items in his refrigerator and is adamant about their placement. “You try living with that… It’s complicated,” the singer said in a 2008 Collider interview.
Since childhood, he has used music and comedy as coping mechanisms. “I would always try to make my mom and my stepdad laugh at dinner. Or make my friends laugh in class.” He also finds therapy in performing, saying, “You just kind of get caught up in the electricity of it.”
Timberlake’s family has always supported and encouraged him, and taught him humility with the simple saying: "Everybody puts their pants on the same way every morning."
16 Jennifer Aniston – Dyslexia
Friends Jennifer Aniston star had a difficult time following a mainstream curriculum in school. She told the Hollywood Reporter, “I thought I wasn't smart. I just couldn't retain anything.” It was a relief to her when she was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. “I had this great discovery. I felt like all of my childhood trauma-dies, tragedies, dramas were explained."
She was so traumatized by her early struggles with reading that she continues to avoid the practice. “I had to read a paragraph, and they gave me… 10 questions based on what I'd just read… I think I got three right. Then they put a computer on my eyes, showing where my eyes went when I read. My eyes would jump four words and go back two words."
What’s worse, her mother wasn’t particularly supportive. “She was very critical of me. She was also very unforgiving."
Fortunately, Aniston has since learned to cope with her dyslexia and her mother.
15 Channing Tatum – ADHD
Channing Tatum gets noticed thanks to his talents, both physical and mental, but growing up, his ADHD set him apart from his fellow students in a less positive way. The Magic Mike star said, “I have never considered myself a very smart person, for a lot of reasons.” Because he couldn’t conform to the education standard, he got lost in the system.
“Not having early success on that one path messes with you…You get lumped in classes with kids with autism and Down syndrome, or you get put in the typical classes and you say, ‘All right, I’m obviously not like these kids either.’ So you’re kind of nowhere. You’re just different.” Tatum advocates strongly for education reform in regard to learning disabilities. “The system is broken. If we can streamline a multibillion-dollar company, we should be able to help kids who struggle the way I did.”
14 Robin Williams – ADHD
The beloved late actor and comedian Robin Williams was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age. The World’s Greatest Dad star used humor to deflect his insecurities and his perceived shortcomings.
Growing up, Williams had little family support. His parents left him in their attic for hours at a time, where he staved off fear and loneliness with imaginative play. He later channeled his frustrations into exercise and video games. He also, unhelpfully, occasionally turned to substance abuse as a backup. Staying busy helped him cope with his mental demons. He became of Hollywood’s biggest stars and his films brought joy to millions.
He later managed to get substance abuse under control but was plagued by several other health issues that eventually drove him to suicide. But before that, performance was instrumental in helping him overcome his ADHD.
13 Salma Hayek – Dyslexia
When she first arrived in Hollywood, the Frida star had a tall ladder to climb. “Everybody thought I was so out of my league… The people in Hollywood were the first ones to try and discourage me.” She told Harper’s Bazaar UK, “I have an accent, am dyslexic, short, and chubby. You name it, I have it, but I am here. I must be the luckiest girl in the world to be working.”
The Mexico native managed to overcome all of her challenges with aplomb and is one of the world’s most successful actors. She credits her learning disability for her great memory retention. “Some people read really fast, but you’ll ask them questions about the script and they’ll forget… I take a long time to read a script, but I read it only once.”
This skill brought numerous opportunities to the Oscar-nominated actress. “I directed a movie, and I never brought the script to set.”
12 Jim Carrey – ADHD
Growing up, teachers chided Grinch star Jim Carrey for his ADHD-driven behavior. “My report card always said, Jim finishes first and then disrupts the other students.” Eventually, he learned to channel his excess energy into creative pursuits, particularly comedic acting. Though he underwent treatment as a child, his high energy and quick wit play a large part in his accomplishments.
Those familiar with Carrey’s body of work may not be surprised to learn that the actor continues to struggle with ADHD in adulthood. But if anything, it’s been more help than hindrance. Famous for his manic turns in such films as Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb & Dumber, Carrey still finds it, “hard for me to come down from what I do.”
However, there’s no doubt that ADHD was instrumental in giving Carrey the successful career he has today.
11 Orlando Bloom – Dyslexia
The Pirates of the Caribbean star Orlando Bloom was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 7. “It was something that I hid from other kids as best I could. I was an angry child at times.“ His mother wanted him to focus on reading, but he sought a more physical outlet, turning to theater.
“When my mother told me that I was dyslexic it was both a gift and a bit of a cross to bear, but she tried to make me feel like it was something special.” Through acting, he mastered reading out loud.
Dyslexia also helped him prepare for his roles. “I learned everything forward and backward, inside out, so I was fully prepared,” he said. “I had to learn everything so that I wouldn’t have stage fright or the lines wouldn’t fall out of my mind… When I was on stage I was more focused than I was anywhere else.”
10 Vince Vaughn – ADHD & Dyslexia
As a kid, Vaughn’s double whammy of ADHD and dyslexia put him at both an academic and social disadvantage. He struggled with reading and because he couldn’t get the help he needed, he lost interest in schoolwork. He was sent to special education classes, which further alienated him from his peers. But the award winning actor agrees with his father’s decision not to put him on the prescribed medications.
Vaughn believes that his father made the right decision. “You're sort of just numbing that person so there is not a problem every day in school," he explained. "But you're not necessarily helping that person to attain information and learn things." The Swingers star cites his interest in acting for giving him the tools to cope. “When you have these setbacks, you develop a really good work ethic, because you have to try harder.”
9 Keanu Reeves – Dyslexia
It was a hard road to success for this mega-star. As a child, Dyslexia made for a very painful experience in school. He was expelled from high school because he, “was just a little too rambunctious and shot my mouth off once too often.” He channeled some of his energy into hockey, earning the nickname, “The Wall”. But because of an injury, he was forced to find a new hobby.
The Point Break star told Handbag Magazine, “I did a lot of pretending as a child. It was my way of coping with the fact that I didn’t really feel like I fit in.” His pretending practice paid off, and he’s enjoyed a successful acting career for the better part of three decades.
Though he still has trouble reading, he finds the familiar written word therapeutic. “I recite Shakespeare to calm myself down… It’s very relaxing when you read it out loud.”
8 Michelle Rodriguez – ADD
She dropped out of high school, but later earned her GED and beat out 350 women for her award-winning debut in the 2001 film, Girlfight. She still cites the condition as an obstacle to her writing and directing aspirations, telling Cosmopolitan Magazine that she has, “a hard time focusing when I’m alone.” T
hough she has yet to take the reigns on a film, she continues to add to her impressive acting resume, logging 40 credits to date. Rodriguez is her own hero. “Sometimes you gotta believe. And sometimes you may be wrong. But until you try it and put it out there, you can’t let anybody have an opinion about it. That’s how you get it done.”
7 Sylvester Stallone – Dyslexia
“I don’t think I ever passed an English course in my life,” says the quadruple threat responsible for creating the iconic characters Rocky and Rambo. As a sufferer of dyslexia, Sylvester Stallone struggled academically throughout his childhood. Without proper guidance, his educational setbacks left him feeling slow and inadequate. Fortunately, he was able to recognize his strengths and focus on them.
“My construction and being able to diagram a sentence and so forth was not very accomplished. But I realized I could tell a story.” In addition to over 80 acting credits, he also wrote, directed, and produced numerous films, many of which are part of the Rocky and Rambo franchises.
The three-time Academy Award-nominee is also one of the most successful and highest paid actors of all time. No one would dare call this man slow today.
6 Whoopi Goldberg – Dyslexia
Whoopi Goldberg wasn’t diagnosed withdyslexia until she became an adult, which made her childhood very challenging. Her teachers were less than helpful, calling her dumb and slow. But today, they are eating their words.
In a 2004 interview, Goldberg said, “I knew I wasn’t stupid, and I knew I wasn’t dumb. My mother told me that.” She’s had a tremendously successful performing career, as one of only 12 people to complete an EGOT (earning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). She’s also written several children’s books.
She believes she would not have been able to achieve her dreams without her unique brain chemistry. “The advantage,” she says, “is that my brain sees and puts information in my head differently, more interestingly than if I saw it like everyone else.”
5 Dan Aykroyd – Tourette’s & Asperger’s
Ghostbusters star Dan Aykroyd lives with an unusual cocktail of conditions. Though his Asperger’s and Tourette’s cases are mild, his life has not been without adversity. The hardest period for him was during childhood. He had to work much harder than his peers to achieve academically. He wasn’t even diagnosed with Asperger’s until adulthood, when his wife noticed it was taking a toll and insisted he seek help.
Says Aykroyd, “One of my symptoms include my obsession with ghosts and law enforcement – I carry around a police badge with me, for example.” His ghost obsession led him to the inspiration for one of his most iconic projects. “I became obsessed by Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever.”
He was well aware of his Tourette’s in childhood, exhibiting physical tics, grunts, and nervousness. He worked with a therapist and had eased most of his symptoms by 14.
4 Danny Glover – Dyslexia
Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover struggled with dyslexia before it was a widely recognized diagnosis. Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, he knew he had trouble with reading, but didn’t have a name for it. Said Glover, “I don’t believe there was a real discussion about the idea of dyslexia and learning differences… In the seventh grade, because of my grades, the counselor made a comment to my mother that I was retarded.”
Many years later, he was tested and diagnosed but by then, he had already developed his own coping mechanisms. “You celebrate those things that you’re good at, and you become better at those. I was always good with numbers, always good with math; history was something that I was attracted to, so there are ways you can manage.”
3 Cher – Dyslexia & Dyscalcula
As a student, Cher never understood why she had so much trouble with her lessons. Because her condition was unknown at the time, teachers repeatedly accused her of not trying hard enough. As she wrote in The First Time: “I couldn’t read quickly enough to get all my homework done… math was like trying to understand Sanskrit… Almost everything I learned, I had to learn by listening.” She dropped out of high school to pursue show business.
The acclaimed musician and Oscar winner didn’t discover the true nature of her learning condition until her son Chaz, suffering from similar reading issues, was diagnosed with Dyslexia. “It was like a big, Ohhh… Now I understood everything, why I had so much trouble with school. It all fit together.”
Cher still professes to having trouble reading and writing, though you wouldn’t know it from her 3 million Twitter followers and countless fans all over the world.
2 Daniel Radcliffe – Dyspraxia
Daniel Radcliffe has had dyspraxia his whole life. The lesser-known neurological condition affects motor skill development. He has particular trouble with handwriting and tying his own shoes. “I sometimes think, ‘Why, oh why, has Velcro not taken off?’” During his early school years, he had low self-esteem because his disorder made him feel he wasn’t good at anything and had “no discernible talent.”
At age 9, his mother encouraged him to audition for a play to distract him from his hardships and bring him out of his shell. His mother was clearly onto something because it led to Radcliffe’s starring role in the billion dollar Harry Potter film franchise. Radcliffe’s advice for other Dyspraxia sufferers is, “Do not let it stop you… The fact that some things are more of a struggle will only make you more determined, harder working and more imaginative in the solutions you find to problems.”
1 Tom Cruise – Dyslexia
Most people wouldn’t associate the Tom Cruise with “hardship”. But the actor/director/producer wasn’t always on top of the world. Cruise told People Magazine that as a youth his dyslexia made him a “functional illiterate.” He found his studies difficult if not impossible, and put his focus on more physical activities like sports and theater.
Both his father and other children perceived Cruise as lazy and slow and bullied him repeatedly. “My childhood was extremely lonely. Lots of kids made fun of me. That experience made me tough inside because you learn to quietly accept ridicule… I had to train myself to focus my attention. I became very visual and learned how to create mental images in order to comprehend what I read.”
Today, he’s a board member at Hollywood Education and Literacy Project (H.E.L.P.), giving others the help he never received.
Do you know of any other actors who have overcome learning disabilities? Tell us in the comments!