About Brian Shaughnessy
In 1983 Brian Shaughnessy walked into surgery and awoke paralyzed – never having been warned of the risk of becoming a quadriplegic. Shaughnessy survived by enduring the horrors of his disability with hope and humor.
He exchanged chilly Minnesota for New Mexico, traveled, worked, entertained, returned to school, earned Bachelor’s degrees in English and Theater before moving to Hawaii where he received a Master’s degree in Theater. He founded Open Door Theatre, which produces plays by, for and about persons with disabilities.
Opting for a “simpler” life, Shaughnessy enrolled in law school and graduated in 1999. In the same year, Brian married his wife Amy in 1999 and has since been an attorney, public speaker, and writer of The Squeaky Wheel – An Unauthorized Autobiography and various plays that sometimes tell of disability and ALWAYS... more.
After enduring the HORRORS of quadriplegia, prevailing, completing advanced degrees, starting a theatre company, marrying (Amy - oncology nurse and Hong Kong immigrant) AND adopting a Hawaiian son with special needs (Amadeus Yun Chi Shaughnessy), Brian faced the greatest injustice of his seemingly tragic lifetime. Amy was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and died 11 months later -- 4 days after his father. He would have cashed in his chips right then but had a motherless 5-year-old to raise and thereby honor Amy.
Brian considers his most important role to be father to his son Amadeus.
What happened? Brian was a red-headed young man in college with an interest in writing and an increasing call to theater when his already eventful life changed radically when he became a quadriplegic at 24, the result of unexpected complications during surgery on a spinal cyst. But as anyone who takes the time to get into a conversation with him knows, he quietly and determinedly refuses to let it hold him down. He would be the tortoise in the classic tale
Always hoping for a full recovery and supported by a network of friends and family, he finished his undergraduate education. Then, in 1987, Brian came to Hawai’i to earn an MFA in Theater at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa. Aside from short trips and summers away (often made into ORDEALS by the various airlines' neglect of his wheelchair AND himself) he’s been here ever since.
Though Hawai’i was very different and far away from his Minnesota hometown, Shaughnessy made friends easily.
Now married, (and since widowed) he says, “I have a new family here that I would take a bullet for, and friends who’ve earned the right to be called family.”
Hawai’i was a good fit for Shaughnessy in other ways, as well. “I don’t like winter,” he says, smiling. “Hawai’i is beautiful, and the people are wonderful.”
Shaughnessy wrote and directed plays as part of his program at the University of Hawai’i. He also had a chance to get familiar with the university’s KOKUA office, which serves students with disabilities.
Since becoming a quadriplegic, Shaughnessy has faced problems with personal care attendants, state programs, housing, and... airline travel. Interaction with groups like KOKUA and his own life experiences prompted the next stage in Shaughnessy’s life: law school.
“I went to law school to make it easier for the next schmuck who finds himself in my position,” he says. “Bureaucracies are ridiculous. It’s awful to see a person further disabled by the system.”
Since graduating in 1999, he has used his degree to help people navigate special education litigation, and he spent some time as a director at the Disability Rights Legal Center at Loyola Marymount School of Law in California.
His keen sense of humor is another important aspect of his life. He’s done stand-up comedy, though he jokes, “I don’t know if it can be called stand-up when a person in a wheelchair is doing it. Maybe it’s sit-down.”
Last week, he opened for comedian Augie T at Augie’s Wednesday night show at the Sheraton Waikiki.
Quite sarcastic, Shaughnessy “really hasn’t made any adjustment” to his humor since moving to Honolulu, he says. “Either it goes or it doesn’t go.”
Brian placed second in the Twin Cities Funniest Person Competition in Minneapolis, leading some to suggest he might be the funniest person on wheels. While in California he got a shot on stage at the Comedy Store. “it was very exciting because this club shows up on TV — Letterman started there, and Richard Pryor. They do a lottery (for an audience member to have a chance on stage), and I made it.”
It was a bit of a struggle for him to make it on stage, he says, because the route was practically all steps and narrow doorways. “They needed oil and a shoehorn to get me up there,” he notes, laughing, but they finally did.
That combination of humor and drive may help Shaugnhnessy with his next big project: turning his book into a movie. The potential project involves a director/classmate, who is helping to pitch the project.
Shaughnessy acknowledges that “for every hundred options contracts, one gets turned into a movie” but he has high hopes: “In an ideal universe, we’ll get the money, make it low-budget, with lots of control for the director and I; he gets to direct it, and we find an actor who’s interested.”
That actor would ideally be a person with a disability, as Shaughnessy would like to see more people with disabilities in movies and on TV.
Whether or not his book becomes a feature film, Shaughnessy says he gained a great deal from the process of writing. He says he “gained the ability to acknowledge what I had been through.”
Though others commonly told him he was inspirational, he was dismissive of praise. “I always felt like I was watching Brian go through this from above,” he says. “Now, after almost 24 years, I feel more integrated. I feel there’s more to be done.”
Shaughnessy has had more on his mind than the movie deal. His wife, Amy Shaughnessy, 45, was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer.
Shaughnessy met his wife, who is from Hong Kong, while she was working as a nurse; they married in 1999. They have a now 11 year-old son, Amadeus who was born on 09/06/2001
According to Brian, if he can only communicate one thing, it is how important his wife is and was to him. He now only has his son Amadeus .People think, ‘Wow, that is the greatest thing in the world’,” he says. “They don’t know anything else about me, but they know with out my wife here me and amadeus are still family. And it gives people hope that we have the ability to move forward and to overcome all obstacles and to still get up and find a reason to smile