I just watched this film for the second time. The first time was as a graduate student in health advocacy at Sarah Lawrence--it was part of the program, along with reading about Harriet McBryde Johnson, who advocated for the disabled (see [...]
It is an opportunity to learn from the experts. Mark O'Brien is deadly funny and is now the subject of a film, "The Sessions." One of the most heartbreaking lines in the original documentary is that he feels he needs to become lovable, not really realizing that he already is. I take to heart his thought that we ALL become disabled eventually, unless we die first.
O'Brien's spirit is too strong for this film to be depressing--it is difficult to truly consider, and it is thought-provoking. Filmed in short snippets, it is under 40 minutes in length. There are subtitles because the audio is not always clear. Well worth the time.
I very much appreciated hearing about Mark O’Brien’s life—from Mark O’Brien! In addition to the opportunity to hear some of his writings and poetry, the film offers an inside story on the disability rights movement in the United States—something many of us know far too little about. A recent Hollywood film about O’Brien (The Sessions) highlights a brief period in his life (see a helpful critique at [...] ) and is based on an article he wrote in 1990 (which can be accessed at [...] . I especially appreciate Breathing Lessons because it does not follow the problematic Hollywood habit (as does The Sessions) of hiring enabled (not disabled) actors to play a disabled person. This is a practice that has been in place since the earliest days of cinematography and is akin to the historic use of racialized caricatures such as blackface makeup. As Fiona Whittington-Walsh (2002) has argued, “[F]ilms with a disability theme are metaphorical, stigmatizing individuals with such characteristics as: innocent and child-like; savants; isolated and pathologised; self-sacrificing saviours; asexual and dependent; and violent (Zola,1985; Norden, 1994; Wahl, 1995). However, this form of showcasing characters with disabilities is scared with not only these inaccurate stereotypical portrayals, but actors who are not disabled portray the characters with disabilities. A film would never be made today casting Anthony Hopkins, garnished in makeup, portraying Nelson Mandela—it would be a moral outrage, and yet this is continuing to happen to the most marginalised and oppressed group” (p.696).
Whittington-Walsh, F. (2002). From freaks to savants: Disability and hegemony from the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) to Sling Blade (1997). Disability & Society, 17(6), 695-707. doi: 10.1080/0968759022000010461
Why is it that people like this gentleman, Mark O'Brien and the late Ed Roberts--both of whom have done so much to bring the issues of living with disability to the attention of the world's gate-keepers--are relegated to live their lives in squalor and loneliness in their last days?!
I loved how Mr. O'Brien not only talked about issues surrounding his schooling and living autonomously, but also spoke frankly about his yearning for a soulmate, the touch of another person sexually and being seen by others as a total person with the needs of any living being here on earth.
He really gets across the truism that all who walk this earth will some day have to live with their own disability and possibly go through the ostricism that he did in his all-too-short lifetime.
This film should be mandatory for all people to watch.
Breathing Lessons is the true story/documentary film about a man who has spent his life in an iron lung. He appears on screen and is the narrator, and his performance was deeply moving for me. His courage and his inner strength are - the only word is, inspiring. It's a terrible pun, because he can't breathe (literally in-spire) on his own. The presentation is gritty and unvarnished. The film was made after the period in his life covered by The Sessions (also viewed on Amazon) The Sessions with Helen Hunt is basically one chapter of the same story cleaned up and prettified and has an entirely different focus. In itself it's a remarkably tasteful handling of a potentially awkward subject - sex therapy for a quadriplegic. The two should be seen back to back, in my opinion. It makes a remarkable evening.
This is a wonderful documentary because it shows the reality of living independently, but with a fairly complete disability. Mark O'Brien is intelligent, and funny! He sends some very appropriate messages about the challenges of being disabled, the acceptance (by society) of limitations, and the responsibility of both the person and society to allow him and the disabled to live fully, whatever life in which they exist. After all, his brain functions beautifully. I am so glad I watched this, and probably would not have done so if it had not been for the movie, The Sessions.
A child playing one day in an iron lung the next for many many many many years and still see's the positive side of life. I do not know how he does it. I saw the movie about him...You have to realize that most still alive and living in iron lungs now can hardly leave their iron lung for any notable length of time...So its hard to find love, travel, or drive a car or have any real independence. I have always liked reading about the challenges of different lifestyles whether chosen or forced on a person.
A sensitive documentary with a gentle, yet spicy humor, much like the subject of the film. The documentary captured the feel of his writings. I also watched the movie "The Sessions", based on Mark's experience; it was outstanding as well.