When Ryan O'Connell was working to create his debut Netflix series Special, a semiautobiographical show about a gay man also named Ryan with mild cerebral palsy, he was nervous about the public reception.
“When I was making this, I really felt the burden of representation because I was like, ‘Okay, I’m one of the first people to do this and I know that my story is very unique and specific, and I know that I can’t speak for the whole disabled community,’” O’Connell said on BuzzFeed News’ Twitter morning show AM to DM. “And I really worried that someone might expect me to."
"But everyone has been so incredible," he added.
Back in 2015, O’Connell published a memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, which detailed his experience as a gay man with cerebral palsy.
O’Connell wrote about how when he was 20 years old, he was hit by a car and decided to start telling his friends and coworkers that his limp was a result of the accident, erasing his identity as someone who has had cerebral palsy for his whole life. His character on the show also pretends his disability was caused by a car accident.
O’Connell said making the Netflix show was "incredibly therapeutic and cathartic."
"But I think as long as we live in an ableist society," he added, "... I’m always going to struggle with internalized ableism and a certain level of discomfort surrounding my disability."
O’Connell wrote all eight episodes of Special himself after working on other shows, including MTV’s Awkward and NBC’s Will & Grace revival.
Each 15-minute episode shows the fictional Ryan grappling with his sexuality, disability, and self-acceptance.
While working on the show, the creator said he felt pressure to authentically depict LGBT-identifying people and people with disabilities.
“When there’s the one seat at the table, that seat has to speak for every goddamn seat,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure.”
Despite his initial nerves, the positive response to the eight-episode series, which started streaming on Netflix April 12, has calmed O’Connell’s nerves.
He called the “sheer volume” of responses “really overwhelming” and “incredible.”
“I felt such a relief taken off my shoulders because I wanted disabled people to feel seen and heard from the show,” O’Connell said. “Even if it wasn’t exactly to their experience.”