‘SPECIAL’, unconscious bias and the gay and disabled narrative

May 13, 2019

This post contains spoilers for Netflix’s ‘Special’. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! 


Ryan O’Connor‘s new Netflix series, ‘Special’, somehow manages to hit us with the hard truths about the issues that people with disability face in today’s society - whilst, at the same time, had me giggling at least 4 times an episode.

As a young gay man with disability, I felt a lot of hope when I read the premise for O’Connor’s new Netflix series. And in many ways, the debut season did not let me down. With only 8 episodes averaging around 15 minutes each, it’s impressive the depths to which the first season manages to explore. Not only are the characters diverse, layered and flawed, but also O’Connor’s approach to discrimination is both complex and refreshingly diverse.

One of the many things I loved about ‘Special’ is the way it questioned society’s perceptions of people with disability. O’Connor successfully convinces his audience that people with disability can do things like lie to you, be sassy or self-loathing, have sex and maybe even check you out or hire a sex worker. Not only does Ryan’s character have cerebral palsy and experience some pretty high key discrimination, but he also manages to possess some seriously ableist attitudes towards himself and others (cue the scene where he says he can do better than someone who is Deaf).

Disabled people might look super inspiring to non-disabled people and we might seem like we must just all be amazing people because we’ve faced so much hardship...but we can also be pretty damn selfish sometimes.

Ryan sure as hell punches this point home, with his main character occasionally treating his mum and others around him like absolute trash. Ryan’s co-dependent relationship with his mother kind of made me uncomfortable, mostly because I felt an impending implosion that would result in feelings of resentment from both parties. Despite the sensitive nature of the relationship, I love that Ryan was brave enough to explore this part of his story. Combining Ryan’s compromised autonomy with his mother’s caregiver fatigue and the ramifications her dependence on this role has on her love life, had me borderline screaming at them to set each other free. However, ‘Special’ also managed to convey the complex and fierce nature of a parent’s love, showing that they will do almost anything for their children’s happiness and success - even if it means letting them have a greater sense of freedom and individuality.

Beyond this, one of the most prevalent themes throughout O’Connor’s autobiographical series is unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are all around us, and many of them can be completely harmless. But for people who belong to minority groups, unconscious biases often result in some very real and damaging forms of discrimination, such as unemployment or segregated education.

The series kicks off straight away with this theme of unconscious bias. As Ryan is receiving physiotherapy, he compares himself to another person with disability - Bob - who uses a wheelchair and apparently “a catheter to pee”. Ryan’s physiotherapist tells him he is “lucky” compared to Bob, which is a tough pill to swallow as a wheelchair user myself. It’s bad enough that a non-disabled individual has the gall to tell a disabled person they’re lucky compared to someone else, considering most non-disabled people fail to recognise or admit their own privilege/s. But the idea that Ryan is lucky compared to Bob, who uses a wheelchair, gives the idea that Bob is somehow worse off in life because he uses a wheelchair, compared to someone who does not. In reality, Bob may be much happier, more successful and more fulfilled than Ryan. What I mean is: Bob may, in fact, be a lot “luckier” than Ryan was at this point in the narrative. But a non-disabled person (Ryan’s physiotherapist) just assumed this could not possibly be true, based purely on the fact that Bob uses a catheter to pee and a wheelchair for mobility.

This is a very active form of discrimination that arises from unconscious bias towards people with disability (or, in this case, specifically directed at wheelchair users). This unconscious bias is extremely prevalent throughout today’s society and is arguably one of the main barriers for people with disability when it comes to employment, education, healthcare etc.

Carrying on with the same theme, unconscious bias is explored in many other forms throughout the snappy episodes. Kim is confronted with it when two skinny girls (“Boney Bonnie” and “Clavicle Katie”) call her an inspiration because if she can manage to love her larger body, then they should be able to as well. Not only does this represent a greater range of diverse issues, but it also echoes millions of people’s perceptions towards disability. I can’t even recall the number of times I have had someone call me inspiring before they know anything about me other than that I use a wheelchair for mobility. I also can’t recall the number of times I have had someone tell me that seeing me live my life motivates them to do better or feel better about themselves, because if I can cope with my impairment then they can cope with their seemingly simpler issues. PSA to anyone reading this who does this type of thing - WE DON’T WANT TO BE YOUR INSPIRATION! NOR DO WE WANT YOUR PITY! You know what we do want though? We want to be hired, represented, and treated with respect, equal access and equal opportunities!! And we want you to realise that your perceptions and low expectations of people with disability are often the main reasons we are excluded.

But probably one of my favourite things that Special does is that it demonstrates (for probably the first time on TV) intersectionality for people with disability. By that, I mean that Ryan’s character not only explores his life as a person with disability - he also explores his life as a gay man. People with disability are incredibly diverse people, who are much more than just their impairment/s. We live complex and beautiful lives, just like non-disabled people. We have love interests and career aspirations, just like non-disabled people do. And for some of us, we belong to multiple minority groups.

Watching Special made me realise that it was the first time that I had seen the gay and disabled perspective represented on a TV show. It made me excited, and I was proud of how O’Connor demonstrated some of the specific biases that individual communities (i.e. the LGBTQI community) harbour. At one point Ryan’s character talks about not having enough self-esteem to be on Grindr (a gay dating app), with specific emphasis directed toward his insecurity in being disabled. This highlights the internal discrimination that occurs within the LGBTQ+ community, specifically focussing on gay men on Grindr. If you’re not familiar with the app, it is littered with peoples’ “preferences”, such as “masc for masc”, “no femme”, “fit only” and so on. These so-called “preferences” are essentially forms of discrimination in disguise, with effeminate and/or fat people often the targets. With this level of prejudice being projected into a public space, you can’t blame Ryan for feeling insecure and fearing that he will be discriminated against. The harsh reality is that people with disability are subjected to ableism within these online mediums all the time. Whether it be Instagram, Grindr, Tinder, Facebook or Twitter - we are often on the receiving end of hate speech, fetishism, pity and many more forms of ableism. Shows like Special help remind us that we are all complex and unique beings, and we should all be a bit more loving and celebrating of other people’s differences. This is just another reason why people from diverse backgrounds need to be given opportunities to create and/or feature in content like this.

Interestingly, I found myself disagreeing or disliking Ryan’s character for the majority of the series. Perhaps that is because I can relate some of his perceptions and insecurities to feelings or ideas that I once held about myself. Perhaps it’s also because I have grown to love myself and feel proud of who I am (disability and all), so seeing someone feel negatively about themselves and their impairment/s makes me want to reach through the screen and help them along their journey of self-love.

Nonetheless, Ryan’s sense of identity was clearly a major theme throughout the series. For example, when he claimed that his cerebral palsy has always been the “main course” in his life, but he’d prefer people see it more as an “appetiser” - I was in complete agreement. But, in the next breath, he then claims it could be “taken off the menu altogether”, and that’s where he lost me. I love the idea that people with disability shouldn’t be defined by their impairment/s, but I definitely don’t agree with people feeling ashamed of them. Clearly, this was intentional, as O’Connor is displaying his journey of “coming out of the disabled closet” and towards acceptance. However, I do hope that we get some further development within Ryan’s character regarding his identity, self-love and pride in future seasons.

Speaking of future seasons, what I hope ‘Special’ will do for us in the future is represent a greater range of diversity within the disabled community. By featuring more characters with disability, I hope the series explores the different barriers that individuals with varying forms of impairments are facing in today’s society. I hope to also see some narratives where disabled characters are less privileged than Ryan, and also some characters that have a greater grasp on how not to be ableist towards themselves and other people with disability. Tied into this last point, I hope we also encounter some people with disability who truly love themselves for who they are, and are unapologetically themselves - just like Kim (AKA: the best friend we all wish we had).

Lastly, I hope O’Connor continues to deliver his distinct humour and accurate representations of people with disability. These accurate representations are clearly the result of people with disability being in control of the narrative and being given the opportunity to represent characters that are like them. This type of inclusion needs to be employed throughout all industries if we are ever going to get serious about representing diversity in its entirety.

By Jason Clymo 

Jason Clymo is an Australian model with disability, who is passionate about diversity and inclusion within fashion, mainstream media and advertising. Jason is as an Advisory Committee Member for Attitude Foundation and an Ad-inclusion Ambassador for Starting With Julius.

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