Character on wheels
By Elizabeth Stice
Special to The Advertiser
By Elizabeth Stice
One word sums up Brian Shaughnessy: character.
First, because he's someone many would describe as a "character": Funny, warm and friendly, he's an aspiring comedian, with personality to go around.
Like most characters, he also has a great repertoire of true stories guaranteed to amuse almost any audience. Those stories come with a life widely lived: Shaughnessy is an author, actor, aspiring screenwriter, comedian and activist on behalf of people with disabilities.
Shaughnessy, 48, has been a quadriplegic since 1983, but that fact is only one of the many notable things about him. Character isn't just something Shaughnessy is; it's also something he has, especially if we associate that trait with fortitude and triumph over circumstances.
You can learn more about him by picking up his book, "The Squeaky Wheel: An Unauthorized Autobiography," which he self-published in December 2005. The "squeaky wheel" in the title refers, of course, to his wheelchair, as well as his outspoken style.
He says, "I had done lots of theater stuff, written some plays and a screenplay or two, and I always had a drive to do art. I felt like, well, this might be interesting. I hadn't written a novel, the subject matter I liked, and I thought I should be OK with it."
He also wanted to use the book to explain what happened to him, and how he reacted.
What happened? A red-headed ladies' man in college with an interest in writing going back to junior high and an increasing interest in theater, his life changed radically when he became a quadriplegic at 24, as a result of unexpected complications during surgery on a spinal cyst. But as anyone who takes the time to get past their curiosity and into a conversation with him knows, he has refused to let it hold him down.
Always hoping for a full recovery and supported by a network of friends and family, he finished his undergraduate education. Then, in 1987, Shaughnessy came to Hawai'i for a master's program in theater at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. Aside from short trips and summers away, he's been here ever since.
Though Hawai'i was very different and far away from his Minnesota hometown, Shaughnessy made friends easily, and he says he rarely had trouble finding a date, either, in his single days.
Now married, 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 at the Disability Rights Legal Center on the campus of 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 recently placed second in the Twin Cities Funniest Person Competition in Minneapolis, leading some to suggest he might be the funniest person on two 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 director Tom Brady, 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 (Brady) 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 recently diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, though Brian Shaughnessy says she's "turned the corner."
Shaughnessy met his wife, who is from Hong Kong, while she was working as a nurse; they married in 1999. They have a 5-year-old son, Amadeus.
According to Brian, if he can only communicate one thing, it is how important his wife is to him. If he's with his wife, and he has his son Amadeus on his lap, people think, 'Wow, that is the cutest thing in the world'," he says. "They don't know anything else about me, but they know it's a family. And it gives people hope, and not just people with disabilities. I know that's part of my role here on earth."