Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Netflix's 'Special' hopes to break new ground for disability representation on TV

From USA Today: (A video in which Ryan O'Connell talks about coming out as disabled.)

The only thing more difficult for Ryan O'Connell than coming out as gay? Coming out as disabled. 
The TV writer-turned-star told his friends and family he was gay when he was 17, but waited until he was 28 to let his new friends and co-workers know that he has cerebral palsy. He was severely injured after being hit by a car seven years earlier, which he used as a catch-all excuse for his limp when he moved from Ventura, California, to New York at 21. 
"People just assumed it was from my accident, so it was the perfect lie," O'Connell says. "It was definitely harder to come out about being disabled, because I had to sift through years of trauma from being closeted (about my disability) and what that did to me psychologically." 
O'Connell, 32, mines that tricky path to self-acceptance for laughs in his new Netflix comedy "Special," streaming Friday, which is based on his 2015 memoir "I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves."
The show is co-produced by Jim Parsons and features eight 15-minute episodes in its first season. It stars O'Connell as a more introverted version of himself who lives with his selfless, helicopter mom (Jessica Hecht). As in real life, on-screen Ryan tries to hide his cerebral palsy from his work BFF (Punam Patel) and skeptical supervisor (Marla Mindelle) when he starts a new job as a blogger, while also struggling with body image as he enters the gay dating scene. 
As Ryan discovers in the show, learning to love oneself is "always an evolution," O'Connell says. "I'm not going to say to anyone, 'I love having CP now! Live, laugh, love!' I want to be able to say that, and there are days when I do feel that way, but it can still be really hard. I still get asked by strangers, 'What's wrong with you?' or 'Do you need to go to the hospital?' Those are the moments when I really dislike ... society and how we're treated." 
"Special" offers crucial visibility in a TV season when just 18 characters on broadcast series (about 2% of the total measured) are disabled, according to GLAAD. A 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation also found that more than 95% of disabled characters on TV are played by able-bodied actors.
There are some exceptions: ABC sitcom "Speechless" stars Micah Fowler, who has CP, and Netflix's "Atypical" added five actors with autism to its cast for Season 2. But it's still TV executives' responsibility to hire more disabled talent in front of and behind the camera, foundation President Jay Ruderman says. 
Better representation will "only happen through more and more shows like ("Special"). There are plenty of actors out there with disabilities who are just waiting for the chance to do something like this," Ruderman says. "For some reason, the streaming services are willing to take more risks than the networks." (Amazon, for instance, has ordered a new series about three 20-somethings on the autism spectrum from "Parenthood" creator Jason Katims.)
While writing for MTV's "Awkward" in 2015, O'Connell pitched "Special" to cable and streaming platforms, but was met with resistance. 
"It was really strange, because the pitches went over like gangbusters, we were told we'd get an offer, and then it just never happened," O'Connell says. "One person off the record said they were scared for their job in terms of greenlighting this, because it was still a very different world," when networks only began warming to subversive female-led comedies such as "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Broad City."
But he believes that people are ready for a show like "Special" now, and hopes it can do for disabled actors and creatives what Amazon's Emmy-winning "Transparent" did for trans representation when that series premiered five years ago. 
"I hope that we're going to have more shows by actually disabled people," O'Connell says. "Disabled people need to have the agency and power, and they need to be behind it. They need to have creative control over their own story, so I hope that 'Special' comes out and it's just one of many disabled shows out there."