Netflix's Special Is A Perfectly Imperfect Portrayal Of Disability & All That Comes With It

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
At the start of the first episode of Special, a new Netflix series, the sun is shining, there’s music playing, and a man is walking down the street. Then, he falls. It’s a common enough occurrence, but it’s from there we get our first introduction to the show’s protagonist, 28-year-old Ryan, who walks a little differently from people we’re used to seeing on TV.
“Do you need help?,” a kid asks. “I’m fine,” Ryan says, and goes on to explain his physical disability to the questioning kid and to viewers. This “Do you need help...I’m fine” refrain is an all-too-familiar exchange for me, because like Ryan, I am a 20-something with cerebral palsy. It’s a common call and response, whether I’m climbing up the steps of the subway or simply walking through a doorway.
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From the moment it begins, Special, premiering April 12, lets you know you’re in for something different. The show is the streaming service’s first foray into 15-minute episodic comedy and was created and written by comedian Ryan O’Connell. O’Connell also stars in the series, which is inspired by his 2015 memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. Over the course of eight episodes, the show explores Ryan’s sexuality, independence, and what it means to come to terms with his disability.
Cerebral palsy manifests itself differently in everyone. I do not have the same dexterity issues as Ryan; he is able to walk unassisted, whereas I use forearm crutches for support. I have written dozens of stories for this publication and others, but almost none have mentioned my disability until now. There was no need to. My disability has little to no bearing on my ability to do my job — or so I’d like to think. As Ryan says in Special, “Writing about your own personal shit is scary.” The editor who asked me to write about the show didn’t tell me why she was asking me specifically. She didn’t have to.

“My whole life, CP has been the main course, when really it just needs to be an appetizer — or better yet, taken off the menu altogether.”

Ryan O’Connell in Special
One in four adults in America live with a disability, but GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV ’18-’19 report found only 2.1 percent of primetime broadcast TV series regulars — a total of 18 characters — have disabilities. A 2017 study from the USC Annenberg School For Communication and Journalism found that of the 100 top-grossing movies of 2016, only 2.7 percent of characters were depicted with a disability.
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The entertainment industry’s portrayal of disability is flawed. The way journalists write about disability is flawed. Neither Special nor this article can provide a complete fix to either of those things, but both can start to try.
Still, the irony of writing this piece is not lost on me: In Special Ryan takes an internship at EggWoke, an online publication that is shifting from producing listicles to asking writers to exploit their own personal experiences for pageviews. Comedian Punam Patel stars as Ryan’s co-worker and friend, a plus-size brown woman with a love for expensive fashion who is asked to write articles about “loving her curves” all while being as insecure as any woman in her twenties is about almost everything.
The experiences at EggWoke are likely a satirical take on O’Connell’s own experiences as a writer at Vice and Thought Catalog, an early adopter of sensationalised first-person narratives. But Ryan’s decision to lie about the origins of his disability (he tells his coworkers that his physical differences stem from a car accident) makes perfect sense. It’s the same reason why the girl from my high school who was wheelchair-bound for a few months after a sudden illness received news coverage, but when the reporters wrote about her using the school’s single old elevator, they never thought to ask for input from the one other student who had been using it every day for three years.
It’s not newsworthy to say: “I was born with this thing. I’ve had it my entire life. It’s not going to get ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ and I don’t really care what you have to say about it.” It certainly doesn’t endear you to the general public.
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Special doesn’t try to be endearing. It’s not afraid to explore the reality of dating and sex, disability or not. In episode 3, Ryan loses his virginity to a male sex worker. The scene is physical and not afraid to show the mechanics, complete with an extra moment before sex for Ryan to open his legs, which often tighten up. It’s awkward, yet fulfilling, much like sex can be.
In episode 7, Ryan’s boss, Olivia (Marla Mindelle) sets him up on a blind date with her cousin, who — unbeknownst to Ryan — is deaf, in the hopes that they might have something in common. They don’t. Ryan later tells Olivia: “I can do better than a deaf guy.” It’s harsh, but the idea behind it is true: People with a disability might want to (and are perfectly entitled to) date an able-bodied person. It’s also true that some able-bodied people may hesitate to date someone with a disability. That’s just reality.

We don’t need to talk about it all the time, but to deny the effects of disability on any one person, those they love, or those around them would be disingenuous. It’s not all good, or bad or fair — it’s just reality.

Despite all that I appreciate about Special, there are a few worrying messages being sent to younger viewers with disabilities. Though in his late 20s, Ryan appears to have no real friends prior to the ones he meets at the start of the series.The emotional implications of the fact that Ryan’s first sexual experience is with a paid sex worker (though he is remarkably gentle and kind) also go unexplored, as does the concept of disability settlement money —which people can receive if they sue doctors or hospitals after the birth of a child. The show contains passing reference to the fact that Ryan has this money, but the complicated realities, both emotional and otherwise, are not discussed.
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If the show gets a second season, O'Connell has already said he would prefer it have half-hour episodes. I would hope they tackle more of the micro-difficulties that individuals with disabilities can experience: The constant barrage of well-meaning people saying “Are you sure you don’t need help?” or “You’re such an inspiration,” and the difficulties of doing little things like buying milk at the grocery store, because if you buy it you have to carry it. These experiences are ripe for translation onto television screens.
But overall, the show is a step in the right direction — an honest and flawed show is better than any attempt at a “perfect representation” of disability. It doesn’t shy away from difficult and complex topics, from Ryan’s co-dependence on his mother to the toll of being a caretaker. At the end of the final episode, Ryan’s mother admits that she does blame him for the fact that she doesn’t have much of a life. It’s a horrible thing to say, but there are elements of truth.
In an interview with Vulture, O’Connell said he wants people without cerebral palsy to relate to his story. As anyone who has ever come to terms with being remotely “different” from what society deems “normal” will tell you, no one wants a difference to define them. They don’t want to be tokenised.
In the first episode of Special, Ryan tells his mother (played by Jessica Hecht), “My whole life, CP has been the main course, when really it just needs to be an appetiser — or better yet, taken off the menu altogether.” The line struck a chord for me because it spoke to my own desire to “blend in.” Still, we don’t need to talk about it all the time, but to deny the effects of disability on any one person, those they love, or those around them would be disingenuous. It’s not all good, or bad or fair — it’s just reality.
Special shows what’s real for its cast of characters. They are vulnerable, flawed, and funny. And like all of us, they’re just trying to figure out how to tell the world who they really are, and what makes them special.
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