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Why Netflix's "Special" Is Special to Me, a Queer Disabled Man

Ryan O'Connell has created a fully realized, gay disabled character—and that is revolutionary.

When I was 15, I would sneak off to my bedroom to watch Queer as Folk episodes that my friend taped for me. I would observe each of the characters and think to myself, Where am I? As a queer man with cerebral palsy, I was desperate for a version of myself on-screen: disabled, gay, funny, and hungry to get laid. Well, 20 years after Queer as Folk, I finally saw myself in writer-actor Ryan O’Connell’s Netflix series, Special.

The show centers on Ryan (played by O’Connell himself), a gay disabled man with mild cerebral palsy. He lives with his overprotective mom, Karen, in a suburb of Los Angeles. He’s also a virgin.

On paper, this story reads like the beginning of a sad, tragic tale of a poor, disabled man looking to overcome his disability to find love and acceptance. But it's so much more. Right from the very first frame, when Ryan is walking down the sidewalk and falls down in front of a kid, Special introduces the topic of disability with an air of comedy, rather than the heaviness we're so accustomed to seeing on-screen. It isn’t sad, saccharine, or desperate—in this show, disability is simply another layer to the story, and it’s a funny story at that.

Ryan is a three-dimensional, fully realized disabled person who isn’t required to be likable by default simply because he is disabled. As he navigates being a 20-something millennial looking for friends, dick, and all the things in between, we quickly realize that he’s flawed like everyone else.

In the pilot, Ryan lies about his disability to his coworkers and friends, letting them believe a car accident caused his limp. While this decision garners immediate sympathy, it also reveals Ryan’s attempt to reconcile his internalized ableism, something so many disabled people deal with every day. In a later episode, Ryan goes on a date with a deaf man, only to leave halfway through when he’s freaked out that his companion needs an interpreter. And in one of the very first scenes of the show, Ryan compares being disabled to being biracial while at physical therapy: “Sometimes, I feel like having a mild case [of disability] is like being biracial. I’m in limbo. I’m not able-bodied enough to be hanging in the mainstream world, but I am not disabled enough to hang with the cool [physical therapy] crowd.”

These scenes resonate, as they show a character who fucks up and makes a lot of mistakes. In other words, a character who is human. Often, disabled people are expected to be nothing more than a plot device to move a story forward. But it's 2019 and O'Connell's turning that expectation on its head.

From a poolhouse hookup gone wrong (Ryan makes out with a guy only to be rejected because he is an “interesting kisser”) to watching Ryan hire a sex worker for the first time (while simultaneously trying to figure out how to have anal sex with a disabled body), O’Connell captures the complexities and nuances of his identity. Most importantly, however, the audience gets to see a gay, disabled man have sex on-screen—something I have never witnessed before in my life. When I watched this moment of intimacy, I actually cried: O’Connell really did it—he helped illuminate to a mass audience that gay disabled people exist, that we like to have sex, and sometimes that sex can be awkward as fuck for us, too.

Special isn’t trying to tell every single gay disabled story out there. It’s just about one character figuring it out. But in our current film and television landscape—where sexually-active disabled people are non-existent—this is a fantastic start.

It’s safe to say that somewhere out there a 15-year-old disabled gay kid is sitting at home on his parents' Netflix account, grinning from ear-to-ear because he just saw a reflection of himself for the very first time—and that, is special indeed.

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