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Ryan O’Connell: ‘I Was Born Into An Ableist Hellhole’

May 27, 2021

The frank, fizzy comedy Special, which has just landed on Netflix, is a tale of two Ryans. There is Ryan Hayes, the main character, a gay intern with cerebral palsy who lives in Los Angeles with his mollycoddling mother. Then there is Ryan O’Connell, the show’s star and creator, who is also a gay Angelino with cerebral palsy. But there the similarities end. Moments from O’Connell’s life resurface on screen, such as the time he was hit by a car then pretended to his new college friends that his limp was a result of the accident. (Season one ends with Ryan coming out as disabled.) But whereas Ryan is gauche and apologetic, his 34-year-old creator is almost intimidatingly sassy and self-possessed.

Talking over Zoom from his home, O’Connell speaks at the speed, and in the style, of Twitter. Anyone who read the tell-all blogs he wrote in his 20s, or his memoir I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves (from which Special is adapted), will recognise the exuberant voice. Song lyrics and invisible exclamation marks litter his conversation, while acronyms and punctuation are verbalised: “LOL”, “Dot-dot-dot.” He’s like the internet personified, but with none of the spite.Advertisementhttps://641e2f37e98ed72d1fe64587b2742656.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

“Ryan still lives with his mum, has no friends and no boyfriend,” O’Connell explains. “He has Norman-Bates-from-Psycho vibes. And that was not my experience. I had a lot of friends. I moved out to go to college when I was 18. I had sex at 17. Not to brag!” Despite these disavowals, he concedes to some kinship. “Like Ryan, I have struggled with feeling like I’m enough … We were both born in an ableist hellhole, but he is more undercooked than I ever was. I never felt I had the luxury to be socially awk. My role was to disarm anyone I encountered because they were going to be so confused by …” He gestures to himself. “This presentation. It became my job to put them at ease. Ryan worries about whether people around him are comfortable that he never asks, ‘Am I comfortable?’ That’s an epiphany I’ve had.”

Special provides numerous insights into the daily slights doled out by the able-bodied world, such as the gym bunny who congratulates Ryan merely for exercising. “Oh my God, the gym is a nightmare,” gasps O’Connell. “I’m like a celebrity there. ‘Go you! Look at you, gettin’ it!’ I’m like, ‘Oh-kaaay.’” Elsewhere, Ryan finds himself with an able-bodied partner who has a disability fetish. “I have not personally been fetishised,” O’Connell says. Then, with a poker face: “I’m still looking for the right one.”

 

Upgraded to half-hour episodes from the first season’s 15-minute nibbles, the new series is far richer dramatically. There is space now not only for Ryan to pursue his needs but for his friend Kim (Punam Patel), a plus-size woman of colour, and his timid mother Karen (Jessica Hecht), to find fulfilment. “It’s the three of them saying, ‘I wanna be the girl with the most cake.’” He is also proud to have kept his promise that Special would become “gayer and gimpier”. Ryan previously rejected a deaf suitor on a blind date, but now he embraces the disabled and neuro-diverse community.

It’s refreshing to see authentic casting in Special, especially after the controversy over Sia hiring a neuro-typical actor to play a person with autism in her film Music. “Ableism is sosystemic and ingrained in our culture,” says O’Connell. “I don’t think Hollywood is like Mr Burns cackling behind a desk, going ‘Keep those disabled people out!’ It’s more that no one considers disabled people in general, which is very dark and very sad. We’re usually only there for ‘inspiration porn’ or to serve an able-bodied character’s personal growth.”

How can that change? “More disabled creators. We need to stop putting disabled characters in the hands of able-bodied people because that doesn’t give us money or opportunities, and they don’t fully get what it’s like.”

He is no less militant about LGBT casting. “People freak out when you talk about authenticity,” he says, then slips into a parody of shrill straight-splaining: “‘It’s called acting! It’s literally their job!’” This is followed by a gentle wave of the hand, as though placating a petulant child. “‘Honey, baby, sweetie, I understand what acting is. I’m Emmy-nominated!’ But the reality is that if you’re a straight actor, you already have more opportunities than an out gay actor. Why would I take another role from them and give it to someone straight?” Not only are the gay characters in Special played by gay actors, but several of the straight ones are, too. “Can you believe it? It’s possible!”

An explicit approach to gay sex was a deal-breaker from the moment O’Connell started pitching Special. Backed by its executive producer, the Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons, the show has never shied away from what gay men do in bed, and the new series gets even more down and dirty. One sex scene in particular serves a radical function: Ryan behaves cruelly to his partner, and is cast as the shamer rather than the shamed. “I never wanted him to be this amazing virtuous figure. As marginalised people, we’re allowed to exist within very narrow slots, and I always like to challenge that. I set out to make the viewer feel annoyed at this gay guy with cerebral palsy. He doesn’t have to be perfect so that you can feel good about yourself. He doesn’t need to be your inspiration, honey. He can be a source of your ire.”Advertisement

For all his elation over Special, he admits to feeling “disappointed” when Netflix told him the second season would be its last, but he feels ready to let it go. “This show has given me so much, but it’s never been easy. It has always been limping its way along, holding on for one more day by Wilson Phillips.” O’Connell, on the other hand, is speeding ahead. HBO Max is mulling over Accessible, a pilot he has written set at a disabled boarding school, while his first novel, Just By Looking At Him, is published next year. “The lead is a gay disabled television writer,” he says with a disarming grin. “Whaaat? Who’s that?

If able-bodied people are permitted to plough the same furrow, why can’t he? “Sofia Coppola has wealthy malaise cornered. Sally Rooney writes the same book – they’re good but I’m sorry! – and no one’s like, ‘This again?’ As soon as the characters are marginalised people, they’re only allowed to exist thiiis much.” Perhaps there will come a time when he isn’t writing about cerebral palsy. “But as a writer, I’m naturally attracted to things that aren’t discussed or understood, or which are stigmatised. Unfortunately, disability checks all three boxes. It’s a giant well of interesting stories that we’ve never seen before.” Another big grin. “Why would I throw that out of bed?”

Special season two is on Netflix now.

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