How is disability represented in the Netflix series ‘Special’?

Special is a Netflix original comedy series which follows the life of Ryan Hayes, a 28 year old gay man with cerebral palsy. He secures an internship at a website and moves into his first house to try live the life he wants.

The story is based on the real life of Ryan O’Connell, who created and stars in the show and is also gay with cerebral palsy (CP).

How disability is represented in Special?

When I first discovered this series, I was expecting a mocking representation of disability with the main character being played by a non-disabled person and them having some form of learning disability and facing the usual stereotypical scenarios such as bullying at school and unable to get employed.

However I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. It gave a great representation of disability that myself, and probably many others, can relate to.

Without given away to many spoilers, here are my highlight moments and thoughts on the disability representation:

1. In the opening scene, Ryan is walking through the park and trips. A boy on a scooter asks if he wants help but Ryan manages to get himself up. The kid asks what is wrong and Ryan goes into a quick pase scientific explanation of what cerebral palsy is. The boy reacts by screaming and running away – I’ve had children ask me about my disability but never received a reaction like that!

2. Ryan is in physio having his legs stretched and discussing with the therapist how he is too disabled for the mainstream world but not disabled enough for the special needs world – I can definitely relate to this. Although I’m a full time wheelchair user and registered blind, I still feel in limbo between mainstream and special needs. I need the specialist physical support but mentally I can live in the mainstream world but it can be difficult accessing mainstream without the specialist physical support.

3. Ryan secures an intern job but does not reveal his CP and struggles to do office tasks such as opening envelopes and spends time at home practising opening them with a knife – This kind of thing frustrates me too because I would quite happily take up any job to get on the career ladder, but because of my impairments, I can only do certain tasks. This doesn’t mean disabled people can only do particularly jobs, but employers need to consider disabled people’s impairments and make the adjustments and access to complete any task. Moreover, it will encourage people to disclose their disability to employers.

4. Ryan’s colleague Kim encourages him to visit a sex worker so he could experience having sex. He does so but hides the fact it is his first time and his disability. However after the sex, the sex worker figures out he has never had sex and has CP and reassures Ryan that it is nothing to be ashamed of and many of his clients have CP – I’m in two minds on this one because it is known that many disabled people do go to sex workers but also I don’t want the rest of society to assume that this is normal for all disabled people and that we can have relationships and fall in love. On the plus side, showing disabled people having sex in mainstream media is a great thing and should appear in more TV shows and films as a way of showing the normality of it.

5. Ryan’s boss sets him up on a blind date and when he arrives at the restaurant, he discovers the date is her cousin who is deaf and uses a sign language interpreter – This is a classic example of non-disabled people assuming that disabled people can only date other disabled people. It highlights the naivety of some people in society and makes the audience aware this isn’t always the case.

Overall, Special is full of humour, love and emotion. It represents several aspects of disability from the points of view of Ryan, his Mum, his friends, crushes, colleagues and acquaintances.

If you’ve already watched Special, what were your thoughts? Do you think disability was represented well?

Special is available to watch on Netflix

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