Ryan O’Connell disables our stereotypes and swells our pride in ‘Special’
Name: Ryan O’Connell
Who he is: Writer, actor, and activist
How he’s contributed: Though he has worked as a television writer for years (you probably watched one of his Will & Grace episodes), O’Connell finally got a moment in front of the camera when he created and starred in Special, a groundbreaking show that brought one of the first-ever gay and physically disabled lead characters to the small screen.
For the first time, possibly ever, viewers got to watch a disabled character (played by a disabled actor) navigate the world of dating, hooking up, and–gasp!–having actual, pleasurable sex!
But getting Special, based on O’Connell’s own life living with Cerebral Palsy, on the air was no easy feat. When Queerty originally spoke to O’Connell in March 2018 (more than a year before it premiered), a lot was still up in the air.
“Hopefully [Special] won’t be premiering at, like, a Jamba Juice in Palmdale,” O’Connell joked at the time.
Luckily for him, no smoothies were necessary in finding the show a happy home. It eventually premiered on Netflix in April 2019 to much applause. Critics called it “refreshing, honest and never self-pitying or condescending,” and the kind of show that “leaves you wanting more.”
Plus, hello, 94% Rotten Tomatoes score!
Why we’re proud: At a time when people with disabilities are severely underrepresented in television (making up only 2.1% of characters on TV in 2018-2019), Special comes at a most welcome and much needed time.
Sure, there is a lot of big milestones to celebrate. O’Connell is making history by bringing a leading gay and disabled character to television. And up until Special, I for one am fairly certain I have never seen a disabled character have gay sex on-screen.
But worth celebrating more is the way O’Connell does it. Special is no sob story, nor is it trying to be inspirational in depicting disabled people as holier-than-thou saints who can do no wrong. No. O’Connell’s character is very much flawed. He gets offended when someone suggests he date a deaf person, forcing him to confront his own ableism head on. He argues with his mother and says some cruel sh*t in the process. He kisses weird.
Furthermore, anyone who watches Special is sure to get something out of it, too. Non-disabled folks may take comfort in the humor–as in, it’s OK to laugh at some of these things! Disabled people, on the other hand, may find beauty in the small moments; the ones where O’Connell struggles to tie shoelaces, button-up a shirt, or shuffle a deck of cards, seemingly tiny, ordinary things that many disabled people struggle with every day but don’t necessarily talk about.
At the end of the day, what O’Connell has accomplished with Special is worthy of Pride. Perhaps the most, ahem, special thing about it though is the fact that it is simply being–in its big moments and small–and that, in itself, is revolutionary.