Who Is Ryan O’Connell? ‘Special’ Star Aims To Change The Conversation About Disability On TV
Whether you're a Netflix regular, or you only log in to watch your faves, there's one new series to put on your radar — Special. The offbeat comedy follows the lead, who happens to be gay and lives with cerebral palsy, as he vows to "rewrite his identity." If you don't know who Ryan O'Connell is, you will. Special is not only based on his bestselling memoir, he's the series creator, executive producer (with Jim Parsons), and star of the eight-episode series.
O'Connell's story began when a car hit him at the age of 20 and, instead of owning his cerebral palsy, pretended his limp came from the accident. As a blogger for Thought Catalog, O'Connell revealed some of the most personal aspects of his life, and thereby garnered a book deal. His memoir, I'm Special and Lies We Tell Ourselves, is where he came clean about hiding his cerebral palsy and decided to take his life into a new direction. In an interview with Queerty, O'Connell said of the role, "I never wanted to star in Special but — and this make shock you — the world is not exactly swimming with gay 20-something actors who have mild cerebral palsy." As an actor playing the role of someone living the same experiences, Special is changing the conversations about disability in the media.
O'Connell himself, grew up in Ventura, California, before venturing off to writing for shows like MTV's Awkward, Will & Grace, and the upcoming 90210 reboot. Special (and the memoir) came along at a time when representation matters more than ever. In an interview with Time, Ryan said of the show he was simply telling his story — which seems way more groundbreaking than maybe it should. "I’m excited that people are saying, ‘I’ve never seen this before', but part of me is also like, Why? We should have seen this 40 million years ago."
Though O'Connell the actor is similar to his fictional counterpart, their stories aren't meant to be exactly the same. "The journey Ryan goes on in Special is different than the journey I went on," he added in that same Queerty interview. "I mean, the emotions and themes are autobiographical. It’s all about how hard it is to run from who you really are, especially if you have a limp. But the actual things I’m portraying didn’t always happen to me."
If you meander through O'Connell's social media pages long enough, you'll see he's the real deal. Honest, humble, and self-deprecating the in best of ways, he mentioned the impact playing this role may have on those like him. "Growing up, if I had seen a [disabled] gay guy on TV or in movies who reminded me of myself, it would have probably altered the course of my life forever," he said. "I know that sounds dramatic, but when you’re young and you feel like a freak for being who you are, not seeing yourself being reflected back at you basically confirms that. It tells you, implicitly, that you don’t matter."
So while shows like Special may be a (way) long time coming — it's such a good thing it exists now.