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'The Fell Clutch Of Circumstance'

August 28, 1994

I eagerly turned to the July 31 cover story, "The Man in the Iron Lung" (by Brenda Bell) because I have been powerfully affected by two emotions concerning polio: extreme fear of contracting it and profound gratitude to have been spared. I try each year to express to my high school history students what it was like to live in the shadow of polio, when every unexplained ache was cause for alarm. Always I include the reminder that any definition of heroes must include the patients and doctors who fought this silent enemy.

Even so, I was caught by surprise as I read through tears to the end; seldom has an article so moved me. As Mark O'Brien's contemporary, I saw what my life might have been, and I finally understood completely what the pianist Arthur Rubinstein meant by his simple creed: "Love life for better or for worse, without conditions." He could have been speaking directly of this singular and courageous response to what William Ernest Henley called "the fell clutch of circumstance."

While I am sorry for what happened to Mark O'Brien 39 years ago, I do not pity so interesting and creative a person.



On the Sunday morning that "The Man in the Iron Lung" appeared in the newspaper, I had walked more than a mile to take care of business at the pharmacy, automatic teller and supermarket. I arrived home tired and sticky. With the car in the shop and buses on strike, there was a depressing feeling of helpless immobility. Then I read about Mark O'Brien. Silly me.



Thank you for the moving article "The Man in the Iron Lung." I had polio, but my time in the iron lung ended after four months at age 4. Your research into the post-polio syndrome was well presented and your description of the polio personality very perceptive.


La Canada

Ventilator-dependent patients I know strive for independence, and living at home is less restrictive for them than living in an institution. When independence is compromised physical loss is magnified. Home-care programs, which are so reassuring for the disabled, should be funded with adequate resources.


Seal Beach

After reading Bell's article on the extraordinary existence of Mark O'Brien, I found that I could not stop thinking of this remarkable man, whose plight could be shared by countless others like myself, now in our 40s and having lived through the polio epidemic of the '50s.

I've thought a lot about what I could do to make O'Brien's life better and I did have one idea. I couldn't help thinking that with Mark's being the big baseball fan that he is, wouldn't it be great if the professional baseball players got together and set aside a small percentage of their yearly incomes, which we know are tremendous, for a trust fund for Mark?



"The Man in the Iron Lung" did little to enlighten the already negative and prejudiced attitudes toward people with differences and disabilities. Bell focused on Mark O'Brien's polio and all of its horrific aspects, rather than on Mark and his family's accomplishments, which are remarkable.

Today there are more opportunities than ever for people with disabilities, as evidenced by the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and funding for home and community-based care. However, our biggest barriers still lie in society's exclusion and devaluation of people with disabilities. The use of words like "crippled" and "handicapped" throughout the article serve to illustrate this.

O'Brien just wants what all of us want in our lives; to be considered as a person first, to be engaged in productive work and to enjoy satisfying personal relationships. That he doesn't seem to have all this is certainly not a reflection on O'Brien personally, but on our society.




San Diego

Was the point of "The Man in the Iron Lung" to provide a therapy session for the non-disabled writer to emote about how awful disability is? We disabled people are so tired of the non-disabled using us as subject matter so they can reveal their fears.

It was as if O'Brien was an excuse for Bell's uneducated observations about disabilities. O'Brien is a poet, yet his talents as one were hardly mentioned. The article was a prime example of the stereotypical stories published about the disabled. Why don't you hire disabled writers to write about disability?



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