Art by NEAL P. CORPUS
Anybody who’s tried to navigate the cultural landscape the last couple of years has inevitably encountered a specific kind of conservative. You know the ones: those who disparage SJWs, bellyache about the prominence of PC culture, and rant about how they can’t seem to say anything without offending anyone. And as annoying as that sensibility is, I can’t help but sympathize — it’s our obligation to be respectful about other people’s identities, and it’s fair to be nervous about the weight of such a responsibility. How can we be sensitive without being patronizing? How do we align our perceptions of someone with the way they want to be perceived?
One person who wishes that people would consider these questions more seriously is Ryan O’Connell, the creator and star of Netflix series Special (based on his book I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves), which revolves around his tricky experience of living as a gay man with cerebral palsy.
“Having a disability is like having an unwanted spotlight on you at all times,” Ryan says to me in a phone interview. That’s especially true when you have a condition that — because it involves muscle coordination problems affecting movement, posture and sometimes speech — highlights the un-ordinariness of your physicality and gait. Imagine how frustrating that can be for someone who would rather his condition be seen as just one part of him, instead of the thing that people totally define him by. On top of that, Ryan’s story also involves living as a gay man, which obviously comes with its own set of challenges.
It’s not very often that we hear stories of people whose experiences of sexuality and disability intersect in this way. And part of Ryan’s journey in Special involves taking these two aspects of his personhood, and bringing them into a world that isn’t exactly designed to cater to him.
“I really conceptualized what it also looked like for a gay man with cerebral palsy to experience his series of firsts,” Ryan tells me. Taking into account that by default a gay PWD (person with a disability) doesn’t enjoy the same social mobility — in every sense of the world — that most non-disabled, cishet (hetero) people do. In Special, Ryan also reckons with his relationship with his mom Karen (played by Jessica Hecht) who, having played caretaker for most of Ryan’s life, has to learn to let her son go.
I bring up with Ryan that Lady Bird has been described by its director Greta Gerwig as a love story between a mother and her daughter, and suggest that Special is a love story between a mother and her son, and immediately he goes, “Yes!” (I would like to add that Ryan plays himself with a heartwarming charm, so hearing him light up is just delightful.) “It’s a love story, but it’s a complicated love story,” he says. (His character and his mom) love each other in very valid ways.”
In this way Special also concerns itself with the search for independence. Ryan must plunge into the world and acquire — on his own terms — the life milestones that he feels will empower him (along with help from his friend Kim, played by Punam Patel); while Karen must learn to fill her empty nest with something that will give her joy.
And while Ryan is certainly the most qualified person to tell his story, it’s still a pleasant surprise that he takes his rightful place as the show’s lead. I mean, even the most confident of us would prefer an actor play us in the biopics of our wildest dreams. When I ask Ryan if this was a deliberate decision (“Was it clear to you from the start that, like, only you could play you?”), he says no. “It was going to be a challenge because the world isn’t exactly brimming with actors with cerebral palsy,” he says, which says a lot about the ableism that still pervades the entertainment industry. Citing challenges related to casting and budget, he admits, “I basically played myself out of necessity.”
And yet what we get out of that is a work of art in which its author is fully alive and present, claiming narrative control as both himself and the character that signifies him.
And that’s really what representation in media is all about, isn’t it? To see your experience conveyed and accepted as valid and normal. And Special invites us to treat other people we’d normally engage with a misguided sense of righteous pity as, well, normal. “Don’t talk to (PWDs) with kid gloves, don’t infantilize them, just treat them like a normal person,” Ryan says. It’s a small thing to ask of us, to be as conscious about our conduct as many people are conscious about themselves.
Special begins streaming on Netflix today.