Mark O’Brien: disability rights activist

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Question:  Mark O’Brien is best known as a:

A) Writer

B) Politician

C) Actor

D) Sportscaster

Answer: A) Writer


This is a photograph of a library book rack
Writer, Poet, Activist – Mark O’Brien

Mark O’Brien was born in Boston in 1949, and contracted polio when he was six. He survived and was paralyzed from the neck down. He used an iron lung most of the time in order to breathe. Mark grew up spending time with his family, reading, and listening to baseball games on the radio. He completed high school by participating in classes over the phone and learning from individual tutors. After his family moved to California, and after participating in many different physical therapy programs, Mark decided to attend the University of California at Berkeley (O’Brien “How”).

At Berkeley, Mark benefited from an accommodating community. Earlier activists like Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads started changing attitudes toward disability in Berkeley, and organizations like the Center for Independent Living were available as resources. He earned his degree in English and then moved on to Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism (Honan). He was unable to complete the graduate program due to health difficulties, but he was able to move on to a successful career in journalism.

Mark O’Brien was outspoken on the topic of his disability and frequently wrote about it. One of his most famous pieces, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” detailed his experiences of disability and sexuality, and was the inspiration for the recent movie The Sessions. In the article, O’Brien describes his experiences with a sex therapist, and the evolution of his sexuality in relation to his disability (O’Brien “On”). He also contributed to the National Catholic Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, and San Francisco Chronicle, often writing about independent living, religion, baseball, and literature (Obermuller 669). He initially wrote by dictation, but later began to use a mouth stick to type on typewriters and keyboards (ibid).

O’Brien was the subject of the Academy Award-winning “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” a short documentary following his life in Berkeley (“Breathing”). In the film, O’Brien reflects on his life and perspective on disability, and some of his poetry is featured. He was also known as an outspoken opponent of physician-assisted suicide (Smith).

Aside from his journalistic contributions, O’Brien was well known for his poetry. His collections include Love & Baseball, The Man in the Iron Lung, and Breathing. These works were published through the Lemonade Factory, a small Berkeley press that O’Brien cofounded (Obermueller 669). At the time of his death, he had been working on his autobiography, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence. He died in 1999.


Works Cited

“Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” True Lives American Documentary, 2006. Web. 11 Aug. 2013.

Honan, William H. “Mark O’Brien ,49, Journalist and Poet in an Iron Lung, is Dead”, The New York Times, 11 July 1999. Web. 11 Aug. 2013.

Obermueller, Nancy. “Mark O’Brien.” Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Ed. Susan Burch. Vol. 2. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.

O’Brien, Mark and Gillian Kendall. How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Print.

O’Brien, Mark. “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” The Sun Magazine, May 1990. Print.

Smith, Wesley J. “Mark O’Brien’s Triumph (It Wasn’t About Sex).” First Things, 28 Dec. 2012. Web. 11 Aug. 2013.