Ryan O’Connell Loves TV, and TV Loves Him Back

Ryan O’Connell wants his work to help change the conversation surrounding disability. There’s no reason to doubt him either — his Netflix show, Special, premieres this month (April 12) and it draws from his own life experience as a white, gay man with a mild case of Cerebral Palsy detailed in his memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.

O’Connell grew up in Ventura California, which he refers to as an “idyllic blue-collar beach town.” He tells me he enjoyed it, but that it felt divided —  “There was my disabled life — surgeries, physical therapy, leg braces — and then my life at school where I was the only disabled person. My parents were well-intentioned and just wanted to immerse me in ‘regular life’ but I think in doing so I had limited exposure to other disabled people, which created this discomfort in my disabled identity. Also, from an early age, I realized disability was not really understood or talked about in society so I tried to stuff it down as much as I could.”

At the same time, he fell in love with television, unknowingly shaping his future career. He was greatly impacted by My So-Called Life and Beverly Hills 90210. One might even go as far as to say he was dedicated to TV. He kept a notebook to keep track of the A plots and B plots in 90210 and for Christmas and birthdays, he’d ask for scripts so he could study them. Years later, that dedication paid off. His Netflix series is only the beginning. That careful study of 90210 in his youth landed him in the writer’s room for the upcoming reboot. With such a bright future, some might say that O’Connell is an overnight success. Of course, the reality is that he’s been working at it for years, writing for shows like Awkward, Daytime Divas, and on the revival of Will & Grace.

Despite writing credits on many beloved shows, Special is O’Connell’s first acting role. Though, this was not due to a lack of trying. When he wrote for Awkward, they created a character based on him but when he auditioned for the role, he didn’t get it. It’s common knowledge that acting is a tough gig, and there are often a thousand nos before a single yes, but that had no effect on O’Connell —  “I never gave myself permission to want to act. I felt like, for whatever reason, there was something shameful about it and I took a lot of pride in just being a writer. But looking back, I performed in all the school plays and I liked commanding attention. It’s weird because being disabled feels like you’re in the spotlight because people stare at you all fucking day long when you’re out in public. Acting is a way of getting people’s attention and having it be on your own terms.”

Ryan and I both understand this reality. As a black woman with a mild case of Cerebral Palsy myself, I know that there’s nothing easy about being in public spaces and understanding that there will be people who stare and gawk, as if you are simply existing to serve their curiosity and answer their questions. This shared reality of all physically disabled people who do and do not use mobility aids is why O’Connell’s new show is so important. It’s a natural fit, too — he always saw the book as a TV show. After all, television was his first love. The show will follow Ryan, a twenty-something writer who just wants to tell great stories, fall in love, and be independent.

O’Connell’s past experiences writing for cult shows have proved helpful in his development of the show. All of which prepped him for the fast-paced effort of it all — “You have to break a billion stories in a matter of weeks, so it’s a grind but it’s like boot camp for your brain. And a lot of it is trial and error. You pitch things you love but ultimately don’t work for the story and that’s a helpful lesson in itself. I feel like there are a lot of writers who just want to go straight to making their own shit but spending time in writers’ rooms, honing your craft, is so, so necessary.”

Special and its creator are going to help change the conversation surrounding disability and what it means to live with, thrive with, and navigate the world with one. That is the power of both Ryan’s books and show. They have and will open worlds and make change possible, simply by shining a light on something or representing a community that’s often unseen.

As for the advice he’d give to fellow marginalized people working to get their stories out into the world he had this to say “It sounds cliché but, do not give up on your stuff! When you want to tell stories about marginalized people, it’s going to be a long road. Just factor in an extra couple years and keep with that shit.”

Keah Brown is a journalist and freelance writer from Western New York who laughs at her own jokes. To be fair, she’s really funny. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Essence, Marie Claire UK, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour Magazine among other publications. Her essay collection The Pretty One is out August 6th, 2019 via Atria Books.

Photographs by Doug Inglish