Poet and journalist Mark O’Brien was born in Boston and raised in Sacramento, California. He contracted polio when he was six years old; the disease left him paralyzed from the neck down, and he used an iron lung to breathe. He earned a BA and an MA from the University of California–Berkeley. An advocate of independent living for disabled people, O’Brien was a frequent contributor to newspapers, writing columns on such topics as sports, religion, and disability issues. In 1997, he cofounded Lemonade Factory, a press that publishes work by people who have disabilities. His books include the memoir How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence (2003) and the poetry collections The Man in the Iron Lung (1997) and Breathing (1998), among others.
A documentary about O’Brien’s life, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien (1996), won an Academy Award. His column “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” inspired another movie about his life, The Sessions (2012), starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. O’Brien died in 1999 of complications from bronchitis.