As a gay man with cerebral palsy whose life was dramatically changed by a major car accident, Ryan O’Connell’s story isn’t one that Hollywood tells very often, to say the least.
One in every four Americans has a disability yet, according to GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV 2018 – 2019 report, only 2.1% of primetime broadcast TV series regulars — a grand total of 18 characters — have disabilities. A recent Annenberg study found that of those characters, 95% are played by actors who do not have disabilities.
O’Connell has taken matters into his own hands and created a show for himself to star in that centers on a character with a disability. “Special,” which launches on Netflix April 12, is comprised of eight 15-minute episodes and has the potential to set a significant standard in disability representation.
“Getting the show made has been a f—ing journey,” O’Connell tells Variety. “This might shock you, but putting a gay disabled lead on TV isn’t an instant sell. It takes time, perseverance and a sprinkle of delusion.”
Based on his 2015 memoir-manifesto, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” the series sees O’Connell play a semi-autobiographical version of himself, also named Ryan, as he navigates moving out of his mom’s house, interning at a hilariously ruthless viral media company, and setting out on his own for the first time in his life.
Interest in adapting the book came O’Connell’s way even before it was published, he reveals, including from a big-name Hollywood actor.
“Jim Parsons had heard about it and was interested in optioning it, and a couple of studios were too, but I was really into Jim. Looking back, I was 27, and I was writing for ‘Awkward’ on MTV which was my first TV job, and I was naïve as to how the business worked. Jim was so sweet and he understood the book so well and he was really thoughtful about it,” O’Connell says.
Several producers O’Connell pitched to initially expressed interest in optioning his book, but in the end, they all got cold feet. O’Connell says he was hardly surprised given that it was 2015 which, as he aptly puts it, was “4,000 years ago in woke Hollywood years.”
“People were just realizing that women were funny, so disability was a long way down the list honey,” O’Connell says.
However, in Netflix and Parsons’ That’s Wonderful Productions label, O’Connell says he found partners who were respectful of his story and the kooky, honest way in which he wanted to tell it.
O’Connell says the fact the show can be viewed in “a zillion countries around the world,” thanks to its home at the streamer, is more than he could have wished for. But for now, his main hope is that the show goes some way towards normalizing disability for people in this country. There’s certainly a long way to go.
“I never wanted to identify as being a victim and to have that in the show was very important to me,” O’Connell says. “I want people to stop feeling like we’re something to pity, or that we need to be treated with kid gloves.”
Just a few weeks ago, O’Connell recalls, he was walking down a staircase at the gym when he heard a woman behind him yell, “Oh, are you sore?” He didn’t think she could possibly be talking to him, but as he got to the bottom of the staircase she persisted, asking, “Are you OK?” and giving him a slow, patronizing thumbs up. “People are always doing psychotic s— like that, it’s just really insulting,” O’Connell says.
While “Special” deals in abundance with how others treat Ryan because of disability, the show also tackles how O’Connell himself contends with his CP. Near the beginning of the first episode, Ryan is bumped by a car. After getting up and dusting himself off, he sees an opportunity. When he starts his new job and meets new friends, he tells them that the car accident is the reason behind his limp to avoid “coming out of the disabled closet.”
O’Connell was also hit by a car in real life. However, unlike his character’s experience, the recovery was far from swift.
“In reality it was really, really gnarly. I developed this thing called Compartment Syndrome, which is something that only athletes get, and it’s basically when something hits you at such a force that it cuts off the oxygen supply to your muscles, so the muscles that were controlling my hand were dying. I had to have four hand surgeries, I was on hospital for a month, and I didn’t have any use of my left hand for about a year. It was très brutal,” O’Connell reminisces.
When he moved to New York City nine months after his accident, like his character, O’Connell used the incident to avoid telling people about his CP. He didn’t want to be defined by “a sob story narrative” or be known as “the person with the two disabilities.” At first he thought he had found “the ultimate life hack.” But eventually, O’Connell realized he was hiding an important part of who he was.
“I was denying this huge part of myself which was my disability, and it was causing a lot of problems for me emotionally. Coming out of the disability closet was important for my development and my internalized ableism struggle, which is something I still deal with,” he says.
O’Connell’s disability isn’t the only part of his identity he set out to normalize through “Special.”
In one scene, Ryan loses his virginity to a sex worker. Rather than portraying the encounter as seedy or cutting away from male nudity, as seemingly happens in every other film and TV show O’Connell says, he wanted to make sure gay sex was portrayed accurately in the show.
“That scene where I lose my virginity was really important to me because there’s not enough gay sex on TV and I think people are still really nervous about it, especially just anal sex. I think it makes them uncomfortable,” O’Connell says. “If people feel uncomfortable during that scene then good, I don’t give a s—. It’s weird that there’s gay stuff out there, but gay sex is still not being tackled in an honest way, and I think that’s really not OK. That’s a sword I’m willing die on, the gay sex sword.”
O’Connell’s experiences have taught him that in general, the way in which people with disabilities are treated “oscillates wildly from being invaded,” to “being deleted or ignored.” But his hope is that by presenting disability with sincerity and humor in “Special,” people will start to “act more normal” when they meet someone with a disability, and studies on how few of these characters are on TV will become a thing of the past.
“I think that comedy is the greatest hope to normalize disability because people don’t know how to act, they’re really nervous around disability, and I think giving them permission to laugh it makes everyone feel more at ease,” O’Connell says. “Disabled people are strong, powerful people and they need to be included in the conversation.”