May 23, 2019

Netflix Is Changing the Conversation About Disability on TV

“Ryan O’Connell likens his new show, Special, to an Ariana Grande song—which is to say, it’s pop. It’s not Stravinsky or Coltrane; it’s not, as he puts it, “some lo-fi mumblecore sh-t.” The semiautobiographical series he wrote and stars in, about an introverted millennial struggling to move out of his mom’s house and become a writer, is conventional. Most of its episodes have an A plot and a B plot. There’s a plucky protagonist and a lovable sidekick.

But ahead of its April 12 debut on Netflix, there are many for whom Special is so much more than your average sitcom. The series marks the biggest stage in recent memory for a creator with a disability—and an unprecedented platform that puts him in control of the storytelling. “I’m excited that people are saying, ‘I’ve never seen this before,’” says O’Connell, who has cerebral palsy (CP), over the phone from Los Angeles. “But part of me is also like, Why? We should have seen this 40 million years ago.”

In recent years, conversations about representation in Hollywood have increased in urgency, from #OscarsSoWhite to the whitewashing of Asian roles to the lack of women behind the camera. But disability has been almost as scarce in mainstream discussions as it has been on the screen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 Americans has a disability. Yet only about 2% of TV characters have a disability, and 95% of those that do are portrayed by nondisabled performers.”

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