20 Famous College Graduates Who Had Learning Disabilities

According to the latest National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) research, 1 in 5 children has a learning disability and attention problems. From kindergarten to high school, many students with learning disabilities find themselves struggling with education.

This means 20%, or more than 11 million, of students in the elementary and secondary grades are affected, and these individuals are at a higher risk of dropping out, too.

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College enrollment and completion rates are also lower among the cohort than among students without learning disabilities. 

But there’s good news: Plenty of high school model students and college graduates show that being students with learning disabilities shouldn’t hinder anyone from making a mark in the world!

The Lowdown:
Children, young adults, and full-grown people who were or are students with learning disabilities can succeed in life! While it involves hard work for both the affected individuals and the people who support them, being a happy, healthy and successful person despite a learning disability is possible. Early diagnosis and intervention for a specific learning disability are critical for overcoming the challenges that come with it, but there are also adult-specific interventions.

Famous People with Learning Disabilities and a College Degree

Albert Einstein

Einstein is perhaps the poster child for college graduates or students with learning disabilities whose genius changed the world!

He received his bachelor’s degree from Swiss Federal Polytechnic (1900), followed by a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich just five years later. His so-called miracle year was also in 1905 when he made three crucial discoveries – the Brownian motion’s atomic principles, his famous E = mc2 equation, and the photoelectric effect using applied quantum theory.

He became a Nobel Prize in Physics awardee in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect, but his general theory of relativity made him among the most recognizable pop icons.

Einstein was also known for his non-scientific contributions with books like About Zionism,  My Philosophy, and Why War? 

While Einstein wasn’t formally diagnosed with a learning disability, experts say he may have had dyslexia. He was a late talker, he was a better learner in creative environments, and his perspectives were unique. 

Charles Darwin

Best known for his revolutionary work on evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin was also a geologist and naturalist in addition to being a respected biologist. An inspiration to students with learning disabilities, Darwin had his claim to fame in his natural selection-centric evolutionary theory that continues to influence our worldview.

While he initially studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Christ’s College Cambridge, which his father intended as a stepping stone toward being an Anglican country parson. 

Susan, his sister, also wrote about his poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation skills that were considered “below the common standard of intellect,” according to Darwin himself. But his hyperfocus, extreme attention to detail, and creativity more than made up for these flaws!  

Louis Pasteur

Pasteurization, the process by which human pathogens in milk and milk products are removed or reduced to safe levels, is a testament to the profound impact of Louis Pasteur in our lives. He is considered among the founders of modern medical microbiology. He also discovered molecular asymmetry and vaccines against rabies and anthrax. 

He had two bachelor’s degrees – a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science degrees from the Royal College at Besancon.

His contributions resulted in numerous academic positions and led to his Legion of Honor award, the highest decoration in France, and his Académie des Sciences election. Today, his name is on numerous institutes, hospitals, buildings, and streets! 

Pasteur’s success is more impressive considering that he may have been dyslexic and dysgraphic! Students with learning disabilities should learn from him!

General George Patton

Gen. Patton was the epitome of the fighting soldier of World War II, a unique leader whose charisma, combined with his indomitable drive, will for victory, and offensive philosophy in battle, made him a wartime hero.

He was known for being the best motivational speaker in getting the maximum response for the destruction of the enemy among American and Allied soldiers. His blitzkrieg approach to battle is still considered effective in modern warfare. 

Such was his impact that he is considered among the “greatest generals of the war” despite his frequent political missteps and his personality flaws. His severe dyslexia didn’t get in the way of his professional success either, although it was a learning problem that nearly prevented his graduation.

Gen. Patton earned a bachelor’s degree from the Army War College and did so as a distinguished graduate.

Steven Spielberg

Considered the most commercially successful director worldwide, thanks to hits like the Indiana Jones series, Jaws, and ET the Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg has won two Oscar Best Director awards, an AFI Life Achievement Award, and a Cecil B. DeMille Award.

Despite his prodigious moviemaking talent, however, he secretly struggled with reading, and it wasn’t until his dyslexia diagnosis when he was 60 that he finally understood why.

Like students with learning disabilities, his struggles contributed to his leaving college. He returned more than 30 years later to earn a Bachelor’s in Film & Electronic Arts from  California State University – Long Beach. 

Jay Leno

James Douglas Muir Leno, known professionally as Jay Leno, is a famous television host, writer, and comedian, with his best-known television show being The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on NBC with a 17-year run. He hosted The Jay Leno Show, a primetime talk show on NBC.

He was a Television Hall of Famer in 2014, hosted Jay Leno’s Garage, and writes for The Sunday Times and Popular Mechanics based on his love for automobiles. 

He has a bachelor’s degree in speech therapy from Emerson College, but like many students with learning disabilities, he found the journey incredibly difficult because of his dyslexia which shaped his low-risk financial philosophy.

Tim Tebow

You know you’ve done something momentous when a verb is associated with your name – in this case, tebowing. Tim Tebow is an SEC football legend and winner of the prestigious Heisman Trophy, and a host on SportsCenter and other shows.

He led the Florida Gators to the BCS Championship in January 2009 and was named MVP. He was voted three times as MVP, the only Gator to have achieved the distinction. 

He’s also known for his field dominance, which led to numerous awards, including the Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien Award, and being selected to the All-SEC and All-American teams.

It was at the University of Florida that he rose above the stigma surrounding students with learning disabilities, where he earned a Bachelor’s in Family Youth and Community Science.

Tebow has dyslexia which was diagnosed when he was seven years old.

Anderson Cooper

Born to the Vanderbilt family, Anderson Cooper continues to make a mark on his own, away from the shadow of his prestigious family name. Known for his work as a CNN anchor, mainly through his eponymous news and commentary program, Anderson Cooper 360°, he is also noted for his entertainment abilities.

He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale University and worked his way into the mass media industry – his first job was as a fact-checker which led to his stint as a chief international correspondent for Channel One News. 

He also co-authored The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, & Loss, with his mother. He has also published his memoir, Dispatches from the Edge. These achievements are even more remarkable considering that he struggled with dyslexia since he was a child.

Emma Watson

Best known for her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter film series, Emma Watson is also an activist for women’s rights. Aside from being Hollywood royalty, she has also built an impressive body of independent films and was cited as among the world’s most influential people. Her filmography also includes the blockbuster Beauty and the Beast, Little Women, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

Watson has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Brown University, an Ivy League school, and she said that it took her five years to earn it due to her acting commitments. Her affable personality and elegant composure belie that she is one of many adults with learning disabilities. Watson has ADHD, for which she has been taking medication since her younger days. 

Caitlyn Jenner

Born Bruce Jenner, Caitlyn Marie Jenner played college football but shifted to decathlon after a knee injury. Her six-year career as a decathlon athlete resulted in her gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics and her subsequent reputation as an All-American hero. Her football scholarship was instrumental in completing a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Graceland University. 

She also attributes her success to her learning disability – it made her feel different and special, which led to her exemplary performance in sports. She’s also known for her advocacy for the transgender community. 

Charles Robert Schwab

The founder and chairman of the eponymous Charles Schwab Corporation, Schwab is a well-respected investor and financial executive whose pioneering work in discount sales of equity securities made him a household name. Today, his company is among the largest discount securities dealers in the country, which makes him a multi-billionaire since he owns the largest share. 

His success is somehow attributed to his Bachelor of Arts in Economics degree from Stanford University since it established the foundation of his knowledge. He also has an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. But his academic success wasn’t without extreme challenges because of dyslexia, which resulted in his flunking freshman English and French. 

Due to his specific learning disability, he’s a strong advocate for the early diagnosis and intervention of dyslexia among children. His projects include the Schwab Learning Center and UCSF-UC Berkeley Schwab Dyslexia and Cognitive Diversity Center, researching various learning disabilities. 

Barbara Corcoran

Corcoran is an investor Shark with more than 80 small businesses under her belt and a well-known motivational speaker and entrepreneur.

She also authored the bestselling book Shark Tales: How I Turned $1,000 into a Billion Dollar Business! and is a host of eponymous business podcasts. But it’s her real estate business that’s put her on the map of popular culture because of its multi-billion value and because she started it with a $1,000 capital. 

She didn’t let the hurtful words and bullying because of her dyslexia get her down – instead, Corcoran insisted that it “made me a millionaire.”

Ty Pennington

Born Gary Tygert Burton, Ty Pennington is perhaps America’s most famous carpenter, thanks to his appearances in Trading Places and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition shows. He won two Primetime Emmy Awards for the latter, too.

His first college experience was at Kennesaw State University, where art and history were his majors. He earned his bachelor’s degree in graphic design at the Art Institute of Atlanta. He was diagnosed with ADHD, which he described as akin to playing ping pong while reciting the alphabet backward.

But he used his condition to his advantage, even opening a design boutique called ADHD and becoming a spokesperson for an ADHD medication manufacturer. 

Paul Orfalea

Founder of Kinko’s and an ADHD patient, Paul Orfalea, turned his learning issues to his advantage, too! While he fit the typical ADHD profile, he wasn’t diagnosed with it until adulthood. He was also diagnosed with dyslexia a few years after his ADHD diagnosis.

But his learning disabilities made him more attuned to business opportunities that led to his successful ventures, combined with his natural inquisitive and impulsive personality.

Kinko’s resulted from his early copying business while still at the University of Southern California, where he earned his undergraduate business degree. His IQ of 130 was an instrumental factor in his academic and business success.

Richard Engel

Engel’s fair and fearless coverage of the Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War, and the Arab Spring, among other historical events, has earned him huge respect from his peers in the broadcasting industry.

His fluency in Arabic, Italian and Spanish is even more inspiring and impressive because he has dyslexia, resulting in his poor grades and erratic behavior as a student.

He, however, believes that being dyslexic was a privilege because he thought differently. He eventually worked his way through his academics and earned his Bachelor of Arts in International Relations degree from Stanford University.

He received the prestigious Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism award for his War Zone Diary report and wrote A Fist in the Hornet’s Nest and And Then All Hell Broke Loose. 

Henry Winkler

With an impressive resume as a character actor with acting awards, including Daytime Emmys, Golden Globe Awards, and a Primetime Emmy, Henry Winkler is indeed a character actor! Fonzie in Happy Days, Coach Klein in The Waterboy, and Arthur Himbry in Scream are just a few of his most memorable characters. 

He’s also the writer behind the bestselling series of children’s books, Here’s Hank, inspired by his own experiences with dyslexia.

Despite admitting to having a “high level of low self-esteem,” he completed his bachelor’s degree and an honorary Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from Emerson College. He also went to the Yale School of Drama where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. 

Karina Smirnoff

Dancing is Karina Smirnoff‘s way of dealing with ADHD, which she was only properly diagnosed as an adult. She channels her seemingly boundless energy into dance and takes medications to relieve her impulsivity and inattention.

As a professional ballroom dancer, her career includes winning turns on Dancing with the Stars with a championship title and runner-up titles. She’s also a multiple World Trophy Champion, US National Champion, Asian Open Champion, UK Open, Dutch Open, and US Open. 

Smirnoff has a double major in information systems and economics from Fordham University. 

Craig McCaw

McCaw is best known for his influential role in the birth of the cellular phone industry, including his founding of McCaw Cellular and Clearwire Corporation.

The businessman and entrepreneur were diagnosed with dyslexia, but instead of letting it stop him from success, he considers his learning disability part of his success. He once said that people could be defeated by it or be more tenacious because of it – and he belongs to the second category. 

He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University, where he also ran his father’s cable company from his dorm room. His business acumen was also instrumental in the widespread acceptance of cell phones in modern society. 

John Chambers

John Chambers still gets sweaty hands when he has to talk about it dyslexia because he initially didn’t think of dyslexia as a strength. The legendary former CEO and executive chairman of CISCO Systems was diagnosed when he was nine.

Chambers has a bachelor’s degree in business, an MBA in Finance and Management from Indiana University Kelley School of Business, as well as a Juris Doctor degree from West Virginia University. WVU also has a John Chambers College of Business and Economics in his honor. 

William Gaston Caperton III

Caperton was the 31st Governor of West Virginia (1989-1997) and a past president and CEO of the College Board (1999-2012). His two-term gubernatorial stint was characterized by his primary focus on education, particularly an equal education approach for students with learning disabilities and other disabilities.

His passionate commitment resulted in $800-million investments in schools, including technological upgrades and physical renovations, while his College Board leadership also resulted in special accommodations for students with disabilities. 

His passion isn’t surprising, considering that he was also diagnosed with dyslexia! He earned his bachelor’s degree in business from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

College Graduates Who Had Learning Disabilities - fact

Common Types of Learning Disabilities

“Learning disabilities” is the umbrella term for a wide range of learning issues. Children and adults with learning disabilities don’t have issues with their motivation and academic intelligence, meaning they are neither lazy nor dumb.

As the abovementioned successful people have shown, most are hardworking and smart individuals! 


Reading-related learning disabilities are classified into two categories – first, basic reading issues relate to difficulties in understanding the relationship between letters, sounds, and words; second, reading comprehension issues affect the ability to understand the meaning of words and phrases. Both types are manifested in two or more of these signs: 

When left undiagnosed and unaddressed, childhood dyslexia can continue into adulthood and contribute to employment and socialization challenges. 


This is a specific learning disability related to math skills, and its severity differs between affected individuals due to their differences in strengths and weaknesses. You may have difficulty sequencing while another person has a language-related learning disability, but you both have dyscalculia.

The wide-ranging impact of dyscalculia includes constant tardiness at appointments, inability to follow directions, and costly financial mistakes. Many affected individuals may also have difficulty judging distances between objects, thus, affecting their ability to drive and work, even when it involves simple math calculations.


This is a writing-specific learning disability wherein an affected person cannot write legibly, but it can take many forms, too. First, a basic writing disorder makes it physically difficult to form letters and words on paper. Second, an expressive writing disability results in difficulty organizing thoughts and writing them on paper. Many affected persons don’t have the spatial awareness necessary to write legible text. 


While dyspraxia affects motor skills, including hand-eye coordination, it can also affect other specific learning disabilities. The brain cannot properly communicate to the limbs, and thus, there’s a failure to complete the desired action.  

Common signs of dyspraxia include physical activities requiring hand-eye coordination, such as buttoning a shirt and writing with a pencil.

Aphasia or Dysphasia

Like dyspraxia, aphasia and dysphasia are considered learning disabilities related to the brain’s output activity.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) isn’t a learning disability, but it’s a neurodevelopmental disorder that can disrupt learning in affected children and adults. While ADHD can be diagnosed in childhood, it often lasts until adulthood, although holistic therapy can control its symptoms.

Individuals with ADHD have moderate to severe attention issues, including difficulty staying focused, sitting still, and following instructions that worsen underlying learning issues. 

Yet another issue students with learning disabilities face is autism, wherein affected individuals have trouble learning basic skills, interacting and communicating with others, and paying attention. About half of people with autism have a learning disability, too.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is there a specific learning disabilities benefit for students with learning disabilities? 

Yes, it’s known as the Social Security Disability benefit, intended to alleviate the financial burden and provide medical coverage for individuals with learning disabilities. The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers two types:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI); and 
  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

Both have income-related eligibility requirements and provide monthly payments and medical insurance to persons with severe disabilities.

In the academic setting, there are special education considerations in order to help students reach their full potential. There are disability support services, too, that help society understand learning differences among students when attending college.

Do students with learning disabilities enjoy certain “advantages?”

While learning disabilities present challenges to children and adults alike, there’s a silver lining! As Jay Leno and Steven Spielberg have shown, there are potential advantages to having a learning disability, but it requires strong support from family, friends, and even educators and mentors. The key is to focus on your strengths and strive to be better than possible! 

Many children and adults with learning disabilities share these strengths: 

  • Creative problem-solvers allow them to come up with innovative solutions, usually because of their unique perspectives.
  • More resourceful in using and adapting learning materials and more creative in processing their information.
  • Better-than-average ability in empathy, time management, thinking with the big picture in mind, and spatial reasoning.
  • Better focus on the small details in school subjects, like sentence structure.
  • Take extra time for quality completion of time consuming tasks.

Again, students with learning disabilities may need extended time and better time management skills to deal with learning and attention issues but they are no different from anyone and have the capacity to excel in a regular college program in a higher education institution!

College students can get financial aid and special education services to help make the journey easy for them. Similarly, a child student’s IEP or Individualized Education Program or special education program in public schools offers the support that the child or parent needs.

Public school students with disabilities also receive special education services thru the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA.

Be aware of the higher education services afforded to you. These may require students and their families to show proof of the individuals with disabilities, but you do have the power to turn things around for yourself!

What are the steps toward self-advocacy for students with disabilities? 

As early as their elementary years, successful students were their own best advocates, and it continues until their adulthood. While self-advocacy seems daunting at first, particularly if you’ve been bullied for it, you can do it by keeping these steps in mind. 

  • Know your strengths and focus on improving them. That, in turn, will build your confidence. 
  • Know your weaknesses, too, and adopt strategies that will decrease their effect on your life, perhaps even allow you to overcome them.
  • Be conscious of social situations and social settings where you can practice the ways of effective communication and build your social skills. Take your time adapting to a new environment.
  • If the student is in their first year or freshman year, find four-year colleges and schools with different types of support services offered and financial aid. Attend a campus tour to evaluate how the school’s disability support services office can help students realize their educational goals and carve out their career path. Graduate students can do this, too.

Is a learning disability the same as an intellectual disability? 

No! An intellectual disability was previously known as mental retardation, but it isn’t the generally accepted term for a condition characterized by below-average intellectual ability combined with the absence of life skills for daily living.

Notice how high school or college students with learning disabilities are sometimes the intellectual hero? When dealing with this type of disability, students may need extra time to overcome common challenges like difficulty reading.

That said, college students with learning issues have access to disability services, campus resources, and many other resources in different schools that assist them in navigating such issues. They receive accommodations and special considerations in academic requirements that allow individuals with disabilities like them to live normal lives.

Key Takeaways

  • Children, college students, and adults with learning disabilities can succeed in academics, professions, and social life with proper and prompt interventions.
  • Being first year college students or graduate students, the learning disability should NOT keep you from earning a degree. There is help from the right schools and colleges that assist students with learning disabilities.
  • Embrace the disability services, special education, and financial aid programs offered by the government or academe to assist you in reaching your educational goals! Whether you are a high school or college student, visit the services office of your university or high school that is intended to support students with disabilities.
  • College students with disabilities have access to special education services, and non-student individuals with disabilities can provide documentation and approach offices and agencies that can assist them.