Kirk Douglas

Profiles of Aphasia: Kirk Douglas

People with aphasia are in good company. We’ve been covering well-known people with aphasia, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gabby Giffords. Today we’re going to talk about someone you know from the silver screen: Kirk Douglas.

Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, the iconic role that made him a household name, though he also starred in dozens of other movies. As an actor, speaking is an integral part of his job, but a stroke in 1996 changed his relationship with language. It has been 20 years of recovery — yes, Kirk Douglas is currently 100 years old — and he has learned a lot about the power of words during that time.

After the Stroke

Even though he struggles with aphasia after his stroke, he sees the silver lining to that life-changing event:

My stroke, 11 years ago, was a blessing in disguise. I learned that we take too many things for granted in this world—even speech. We think our thoughts and then we have no difficulty saying it in words. When you have a stroke your mind thinks quickly but your speech reacts very slowly. You have to learn how to use your tongue, your lips, your teeth. I am lucky, although my speech is still impaired, I suffer no paralysis and I didn’t die. I have begun to appreciate the gift of life. Of course, I do my speech exercises every day. When I asked my speech therapist how long would I have to do my exercises? Her answer was, “until you die.”

Which isn’t to say that his recovery is solely a time of blessings and wonder. Douglas speaks openly about the depression that followed losing his ability to speak.

My Stroke of Luck

Douglas was moved to write about his experience in My Stroke of Luck, a memoir published in 2002. The book chronicles his experience with stroke and recovery, but he also passes along lessons learned. This advice comes in the form of exercises from his speech therapist as well as thoughts about resilience. His conversational tone makes his story relatable for both those who have experienced aphasia and for those wanting to understand it.

Tell us your favourite Kirk Douglas movie.

Image: Delius98 via Flickr via Creative Commons license



  • Nancy Bailey
    August 15, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    My husband too suffers from Aphasia. Last year he had a stroke. He is a singer so this was difficult for him. He still has Aphasia but he is also singing again. His mind still works well and he knows what he wants to say but his thoughts and his speech don’t work well together….But he is on stage again doing his shows.. Tomorrow he is doing a tribute to Elvis…

  • Viv Buckle
    August 16, 2017 at 10:16 am

    I am a mother of a stroke victim and it does make it better when you hear of someone like Kirk Douglas who has lived until 100 years old and has had Aphasia, Nobody understands it but the person who has it. Even those closest to the person who has it would not understand how that person is feeling. I am lucky that my daughter has a really good sense of humour even though she struggles with words, She has still kept her sense of humour which has kept the Family from being depressed too.
    Well done Kirk Douglas for bringing out a book that a lot of people can read , I for one will certainly be buying it.

  • K
    August 30, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    I have aphasia that gets aggravated with stress and makes it hard to find words or express myself in a way that matches my actual level of ability and education. I can type but hand printing has changed.
    This was onset by an acupuncture session with an intern..gone wrong. I did not go to doctor for the pain or symptoms for a month because I didnt think of it..was in pain and it hurt even to think.

    Then it turned into frustration and denial. Well it has always been denial. I thought it was better and thought I was being rational when I quit my job as an educator for 29 years.. The subtle forms of this make it very hard to diagnose but I now realize it can be a neurological weakness too. It is very isolating if you have no family and people think something is wrong. I hope to get my job back. It has been 4 months and 2 since I quit…I love working but the stress of a toxic or unsupportive workplace makes the aphasia worse..a tough cycle.

  • Emily Sanchez
    June 9, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    I know Kirk Douglas had a full blowen stroke, someone said it damaged his brain stem and that’s different from what my husband had he was hit in the head which it’s call subdural hemotoma it’s been 2 years his speech is slurred he can’t walk his cognitive is still not there, I read so many stories and I cry because why isn’t he like some if this recovery people.

  • Melodie Dregansky
    February 6, 2020 at 10:27 am

    My favorite was the speech he gave at ASHA. I would give anything to see that speech again.

  • Uncle Albert
    February 6, 2020 at 2:41 pm

    Sad to hear of his passing…I had a stroke last March…may have to get his book which I did not know about until today…
    I have aphasia to this day…had a good speech therapist but she never said that to me…still have some deficits but I am thankful and grateful every day that my stroke was not as severe as it could have been…

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