April 24, 2019 at 5:05 pm EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
‘Special’ combats stigma surrounding disability
Special, gay news, Washington Blade
Ryan O’Connell in ‘Special.’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Where has Ryan O’Connell, the 32-year-old gay writer, actor, and producer who has cerebral palsy (CP) been all my life? If only his semi-autobiographical, funny, hip new Netflix series “Special” had been around when I was growing up! If I’d seen the show, based on his memoir “I’m Special and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” maybe my youth wouldn’t have been filled with sad, awkward, embarrassing stories.

Take this tale: One night, when I was in my 20s, I left my white cane behind before going on a blind date. My date, watching, as I in my low vision fog stumbled going up the steps into the eatery where we met, was annoyed. “Are you drunk?” she asked me.

“Sorry,” I lied, “I had one too many drinks with a friend before coming here.”

I shouldn’t have tried to pass as non-disabled. (Besides, I’m a bad liar: I stammer when I fib!) But then, I knew few queer and disabled people, and I didn’t see anyone like me on TV.  The stigma surrounding disability was so entrenched. I locked myself in the disability closet and poems about loneliness.  (I was no budding Sylvia Plath: I was a lonely scribbler of cliched angst.)

Why am I telling you about this long-ago bad blind date from when I was (mostly) out as gay but (often, especially, when looking for love in the queer community) as closeted as possible about my disability? Because my story is far from unique. Ableism (overt and subtle disability-based stigma and prejudice) is still embedded in the queer community and the culture at large.

Few gay bars, crucial gathering spaces for many queers, are wheelchair-accessible. LGBTQ festivals and conferences often don’t have American Sign Language interpreters for deaf people or materials in Braille or audio format for blind folks. There are the stares of pity, disgusted glances and gazes of fetishized fascination at our queer, crip bodies. I’m still processing the time I danced with a woman at a queer bar. “Being blind – that’s so sad,” she said, “you probably don’t want to make out.”       

Why do these ridiculous, yet pervasive stereotypes persist? Maybe because so few disabled people are seen on TV. Nearly one in five Americans has a disability according to the U.S. Census Bureau, yet, you still rarely see disabled characters on TV.  With the exception of Jodi Lerner, the hot, deaf, lesbian artist played by Marlee Matlin on “The L Word,” queer, crip characters have been scarce on TV. Even fewer queer characters with disabilities are played by disabled LGBTQ actors.

Despite the large number of disabled people in the United States, “the amount of regular prime time broadcast characters counted who have a disability has only slightly increased by 2.1 percent,” according to a recent GLAAD report.

These characters with disabilities often aren’t portrayed by disabled actors. A 2017 Ruderman Family Foundation White Paper found that “95% of top TV show characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled performers.”

No show alone could transform how people think about and interact with queer, crip folk.  Yet, “Special,” with its humor, charm and millennial slant without preaching, goes a long way toward debunking ableist stereotypes. In the show, Ryan, 28, finds his first experience with work (as a website intern), sex (with a sex worker) and living on his own (away from his mother).  After being run over by a car, Ryan keeps his CP a secret, and says he limps because of the accident.  In a funny send-up of start-ups, his boss tells Ryan to write a post about it ASAP.  Posts about being hit by a car go viral, she says.

“Special,” “illustrates why more disabled people should create media – they have fresh stories to tell,” Beth Haller, author of “Representing Disability in an Ableist World” emailed me.

I can’t wait for season 2 of “Special” for more fresh, queer crip stories.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade. 

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