Authentic disability stories on TV are like the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino of 2017. They exist and sometimes you get your hands on them after a long wait. But whether they're pleasing to the palate is entirely subjective. Personally, I haven't preferred many of the attempts at all. So, when I heard about Netflix's comedy Special written by and starring Ryan O'Connell — a TV writer (and now actor) who actually has cerebral palsy (CP), I was still skeptical.
For context, I have CP. A stroke at my birth caused brain damage, so I have used a walker or wheelchair to aid my mobility for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I always felt different. This is not an essay about bullying, but the fact of the matter is that having a disability does invite more isolation than non-disabled people experience, no matter what stage of our lives we are in.
I had a lot of time to form strong attachments to fictional TV characters. But in all of that time, there's never really been a character I could relate to as a person with a disability. According to GLADD'S "Where We Are On TV" 2018-19 report, only 2.1 percent of series regular characters on network TV have a disability. That's 18 total characters. And 95 percent of those 18 characters are played by non-disabled actors.
That's 95 percent of stories that are inherently inauthentic. It has me constantly wondering, "When will someone tell my story?" Then, I watched Special.
Special is different. Special is based on O'Connell's life. Like in the show, he actually did try to redefine his disabled identity after being hit by a car. He told Vulture, "I never corrected [people] because, in my eyes, I never related to having cerebral palsy. My case was so mild, and I really was just looking for any opportunity to get cerebral palsy off of me."
It's important to note that O'Connell's ability to "pass" or get CP "off him" reeks of privilege — which I have no time for within a community that is so highly marginalized and divided already. Some of us don't have the option to "hide" a disability within a car accident story.
So, for O'Connell's show to earn my respect, he had to own his privilege pretty quickly — and thankfully he does. In one of the opening scenes of the series, Ryan is at physical therapy talking to his therapist about not being "able-bodied enough to be hanging in the mainstream crowd" and not being "disabled enough to be hanging with the cool PT crowd."
His therapist puts him in his place with three simple sentences. "I hear you, but you need to hear me. You're lucky — you're privileged. You need to get over it."
From those words on, I was able to embrace everything about the series. Because acknowledging privilege is a sign of respect for everyone else's disability story — and it shows that you respect how hard it is for others within the same marginalized group(s) as you. For O'Connell to go from hiding CP to showing such respect for telling a story about CP is quite impressive.
Because "passing" privilege is not the only one he acknowledges in the series. He makes clear in both the show's writing and in interviews that Ryan is also privileged in that he has settlement money from when his mother sued the hospital at his birth. Not all of us get settlements, so that represents a huge financial advantage. I, too, could move out on my own if I had the money to buy and then probably renovate an apartment to meet my access needs.
One of the other ways honesty strengthens Special is when Ryan's boss Olivia calls him out for being a jerk to her cousin Michael — who is deaf — on their date. She actually says the term "internalized ableism," which is real, friends. It's not so much a privilege as a mood, but I know from experience that when someone calls you out on the fact that just because you don't relate to the disabled community as much as other people might, that doesn't mean you are better than anyone — it frees you up to knock down walls and be who you are rather than who you want people to see you as. Ryan is just lucky his boss was bold enough to do it; he saved money on years of therapy.
In my opinion, this type of honesty and acknowledgement of privilege is the key to authentic diversity representation on any show. Blatantly saying "Hey, I understand this character's story isn't your story" frees you to tell a nuanced story of your own without trying to speak for an entire community — because that's a huge and impossible burden to carry.
Letting it go helps the story focus on small details that make Ryan's life extremely relatable to me. Someone is finally validating that it takes people with disabilities longer to move out of their parents' houses, get jobs, have sex, set up for parties, open boxes — and that's OK. Our stories are still worth telling for more reasons than to check off a "diversity" box (and they're pretty damn funny, too).
My friends have never completely bailed on one of my parties like they do to Ryan, but one time my entire sorority left me to walk alone in the rain to get food while they all drove. That's just one example of how lonely disability can feel sometimes. So — I totally relate to Ryan in the housewarming party episode. I'm not going to pay a guy to have sex with me, but I wrote about my first kiss for the world to read on the internet and that was really hard. Honesty about sexuality and disability is hard.
Just because I think O'Connell's writing frees him from the burden of speaking for everyone doesn't mean that it disappears. "It’s also stressful, by the way, to be one of the first disabled leads on TV. It’s overwhelming because I know that Special is not going to speak for every disabled person’s experience. It can never be," he told Vulture.
But, I have a feeling he tried. There are at least two versions of this essay in which I just threw up all of the reasons Special is important for everyone to watch on the screen, and it made no coherent sense. But this piece is important to me. Because perhaps someone will read it and finally understand why people with disabilities are literally begging for better representation. If this essay makes one person who wouldn't have otherwise watched Special decide to watch it, that matters. (Literally it does. Netflix really cares about its super secret ratings.)
So, I was trying to say all of the things about why disability representation is important and how O'Connell got it right — but I can't. Like him, I'm just one person trying to do what I can so that it's easier for the next person to be given the time to write the next essay. Bottom line? People with disabilities deserve more of this type of content. Or, as O'Connell told Vulture "I hope that Special is a success so other stories can be f*cking told. Disabled people need to be empowered."
Our stories are ours, and it's about damn time we be allowed to tell them in all of their forms. No matter what the TV industry thinks, it isn't moving the needle forward by casting non-disabled people as disabled characters. A lot of people pat themselves on the back for it, but I wish they would stop — it's just more oppression. It's telling nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population that their stories don't matter to you. Most of the time, characters with disabilities seem to only exist on TV to make non-disabled people feel better about themselves.
But I'm not your inspiration. I don't exist to make you feel better about your life — I'm just trying to live my own. Like I said earlier, I use TV to help envision what that means — a lot of people do. So I know there's a wheelchair user out there who needs to see a disabled lawyer, doctor, or scientist on screen. Seeing yourself on screen is at once magical and comforting; it can help you envision and then create paths toward your own goals. So disabled people need to keep taking the mic and telling their own nuanced stories. I truly believe that's how change is made — one mic grab at a time — and O'Connell agrees.
"I wanna reach as many people as possible because if this show had come out when I was a teenager, it would’ve saved my f*cking life," he told Vulture. "When you don’t see yourself being reflected back at you, you’re implicitly told that you don’t matter. That your life does not matter, it’s not worth being told, it’s not worth being discussed. And that f*cks with you on such a deep level."
Special is proof that there are plenty of other ways you can screw with us, and they might be fun!