On Seeing Myself: Representation and Ryan O’Connell’s Special

By

Navigating my workplace with a disability looks like this: A coworker introduces himself by asking if I’m injured. I explain that I just came out walking funny, but not to worry because I’m here drinking this shitty drip coffee like everybody else. The next time I see him, he asks again: “Did you hurt your leg? Your ankle? Your foot?” I explain again, less politely this time. He stammers, then fake apologizes for my being “offended.”

“How is your ankle doing?” becomes his nice guy refrain. I wonder why he got so specific with my ankle and think I’d respect him more if he just told me that my body confuses him. The faux-concern glides out any time he passes me in the hallway, near the bathrooms, at my desk. I stop responding and ignore him altogether, double-tapping the AirPods I just shamed myself for buying. I don’t see him for months, until today—as I’m reading my book on my lunch break. He approaches me sheepishly, mock-sensitivity a performance he wears like the wide-brimmed hat he probably bought at Urban Outfitters. He gestures for me to take my headphones out. I do. “I just wanted to ask you a question,” he says, the register of his voice a smarmy accessory to his brand as a self-proclaimed empath. “How is your ankle?”

I picture smashing my LaCroix can in some hulk-like sequence, Lärabars and organic peanut butter cups circling the vortex of shame that opens up whenever someone fundamentally questions what is indelible about my body. Imagined muscles rip through my threadbare sweater until his jean jacket becomes a tiny blip in the now-miniature millennial start up where I work—tiny standing desks swaying back into place like dollhouse furniture.

I shrink back down to size, choke something out with a snarl. I put more half-and-half in my coffee. I consider walking out of the break room and exaggerating my limp so people stop asking. I consider walking out the front door for good. An acquaintance stops me: “Why were you so harsh with him? He just seemed, like, worried about you.” This is about the time I morph into one of those [SCREAMS INTERNALLY] memes used in emails by tragically hip managers desperate to appear less corporate and more relatable. This is also about the time I start watching Special, the new Netflix series from writer Ryan O’Connell.

O’Connell and I both have cerebral palsy, a disability which—as his character, Ryan, rote-explains to a nosy kid in the show’s pilot episode—results from “damage to the brain caused before, during, or shortly after birth [that is] outwardly manifested through muscular incoordination.” Ryan finishes the sentence with an eye roll, and the kid runs screaming.

This droning, hyper-medical definition is something I’ve also doled out to confused faces since I was old enough to get fitted for leg braces. For instance, I’m in the parking lot of a grocery store about to get out of my car when a man in a golf shirt sticks his head through my rolled down window. His face is a scrunched-up, hungry red.

“This is a handicapped spot,” he informs me.

“I know. That’s why I parked here.”

“You don’t look disabled to me,” he snaps.

“What does disabled look like?” I’ve screeched this line out before, but this time I’m really asking. It’s a question that sits coiled in my gut.

Somewhere in between all the surgeries and hours spent in sterile waiting rooms, kids with CP don’t just learn to explain away their pain. They learn to manage the emotional reactions to it, too. That guy who screams at me because he thinks I’m parking in a handicap spot illegally is ultimately someone I have to first disarm and then console when he feels guilty. From day one, we’re expected to take the microaggressions in stride while still making sure the able-bodied people enacting them don’t feel too uncomfortable.

Like Ryan, I’ve spent the better part of my life squeezing into the reductive language of doctors, toggling between two worlds of mismatched terms that simultaneously contradict and define my experience. This is because the CP spectrum is wide and varying—with some of those affected left non-ambulatory, while others appear just to have a pronounced limp. In an early scene, Ryan unpacks this with his physical therapist: “It’s like I’m not able-bodied enough to be hanging in the mainstream world, but I’m not disabled enough to be hanging out with the cool PT crowd.” In Special, reactions to a mild case looks like that kid who ran screaming, probing questions from new bosses and friends, and painful missteps from well-intentioned loved ones. This is why I wasn’t surprised when Ryan isn’t forthcoming about his CP, letting people believe his limp is from a car accident. In one scene, his ice queen boss asks:

“Are you ever going to get better, or is this just like, it for you?”

“Yeah,” he says. “This is it for me. All from getting hit by a car.”

“Wow,” she says. “Everyone hug Ryan!”

It’s odd and often lonely in the middle of the spectrum, like a double bind that demands I prove my disability but never show it. No one tells us an injury is more palatable than a disability we’ve had since birth. We learn it through osmosis: in school cafeterias and job interviews, in the fictional lives of characters who have never really looked like us.

In high school, I heard a rumor that I’d fallen off a horse and had a limp ever since. I ran with it. I started going along with any rumor I heard pass through the games of gym class telephone. Honestly, it was kind of fun. Until it wasn’t. It’s not entirely wrong to feel like people can’t handle the truth about your body, but that blanket distrust alienates you from everyone—including the people you love most.

When I was a teenager, I went through an entire relationship without my boyfriend knowing I had CP. We’d started dating when I was only eighteen, and at that point I was still banking on inconsistent stories and fake horse accidents. He knew I had difficulty walking and never missed a beat holding out his arm when we reached some stairs. He knew I was prone to falling, knew when I needed help without asking, but never really knew why.

Once, at a small party, I overheard a resident mean girl weigh in: “I don’t get her,” she said. “She can’t even walk. What’s her problem?” I went blank, layers of internalized ableism catching in my throat when I tried to fight back. I looked to my boyfriend who was quiet but wide-eyed. He didn’t know what to say, and I don’t really blame him. Months later, sitting in his 2001 Honda Civic, he finally asked. I told him it’s complicated. I didn’t tell him it’s because “injury” sounds less permanent than “cerebral palsy,” less like a bad TV movie—the word “disability” sticking out in the synopsis right next to “adversity and “brave”signifiers that smack of the patronizing lilt in the voices of all my teachers, the bless-your-heart Baptists, and other well-meaning grownups looking to cash in their inspiration check. I shut him out. I felt the gulf widen.

Ryan has a similar experience with his new friend and co-worker, Kim. When he comes clean about CP to his whole office, Kim realizes he’s lied to her.

“You’re the first real friend I’ve ever had,” Ryan says. “I just didn’t want to screw it up by telling the truth.”

“It wouldn’t have,” she replies. “I’m just sad that you thought you couldn’t tell me.”

The conversation ends with an audible sigh of relief, a stark contrast to the conversation I left hanging in that car years ago. Long after we’d broken up, I finally told my ex the truth, and he thanked me. “It’s what the kid in Breaking Bad has,” I joked, exhaling.

One of my favorite things about Special is the fact that O’Connell acknowledges the privilege of a mild case. “You’re lucky,” Ryan’s physical therapist says. “You’re privileged. You need to get over it.” He’s right. I am incredibly lucky to have legs that propel me forward, however spastic. I have friends who can’t lie their way out of cerebral palsy—who can’t pretend they’re average and able-bodied as long as they’re sitting down. But there are also those people, the arbiters of good vibes, who can’t wait to tell me it could be worse. Is there anything less helpful than that sentence? Sometimes, they are my closest friends, who tell me they’ve never once thought about my disability. I think of them when I’m visited by the handicap parking police. There in the middle of the parking lot, I’d like to look at them calmly, eyes kind, and say: Hey. Fuck you. I say it to the angry hero instead. He calls me a name and storms off.

Some minutes later, I pass him in the frozen foods section. He has two sons in tow. I wonder if he notices my limp now, if that’s why his gaze sticks to the floor. But my eyes fall on his kids, and I’m fixed by how freely they teeter backwards in a playful fight. This is what I notice most.

CP gave me an unnatural ability to know how to separate—how to make small talk while mapping out a deceptively casual route to avoid the staircase with no handrail. How to coolly fake a phone call because I can’t stop on a dime. “Hey! Good to see you—sorry, one sec” I say, phone to my ear. I circle back around once I know I can steady myself on the back of someone’s chair. I calculate exactly how many seconds I can go without asking for help.

My mind is split, the part that’s sharply visual always zooming in on mouths, hands, feet. This half gave me lucidity in Technicolor. I learned people betterwith tools I fashioned under fluorescent light, in hospital rooms and mall food courts and the bathrooms of sleepovers, trying to hollow out a space for myself in between girlhood and disability.

Before Special, I wondered if I’d ever get to see these details, the unsexy minutiae of negotiations with staircases, represented by characters in movies and television—characters who don’t rattle off monologues about how they wouldn’t change a thing about their bodies, who aren’t human enough to say there are times when, writhing, they would do anything to change it. I think of them when I’m counting steps or studying the ease with which children move their legs. I think of friends, family; I wonder if they’ve ever known the sting of their thinning patience—and the guilt that follows. The type of guilt that folds itself into the worst kind of smile. The smile I’ve known my whole life. The one that says, “There are times when I don’t like this, and I’m sorry.” “It’s okay,” I say with a smile back. “Sometimes I don’t like it either.” Most of the time, really. But its etchings have made me strong. It has taught me how to find humor in the darkest rooms.

Here’s something: Not even my closest friends know how many ubiquitous jobs I was swiftly or slowly and awkwardly let go from in high school solely because I wasn’t fast enough, fell too much, needed help. At my last job, I tried to speak to a supervisor about it and was met with: “But you’re so cute! You look so normal!”

I’ve also heard:

“At least you’re smart!”

“It’s probably easier for you since you’re a girl.”

“Do you get money for it?”

“It’s good you have a nice face.”

Last year, I spent time working at a restaurant. I had been discouraged by the physical demands of seemingly easy-enough gigs and felt this would be a fine option since I would be more or less standing in one place. By the time I clocked out, my knees, ankles, and feet had swollen so badly that I couldn’t take off my jeans. My muscles are chronically spastic, so I have an extremely high pain tolerance. After that night, though, I had cramps and spasms so bad that my eyes watered. I was in so much pain that my vision vibrated. I couldn’t remember the word for crosswalk or parking brake. For a few minutes, I couldn’t even remember my own address. The reality of my body didn’t care about what was supposed to be a basic task, a day job, an innate ability. If I could give people a piece of advice, it would be to stop telling others that the very thing that impedes one’s ability to participate in their everyday lives is some kind of “blessing in disguise.” And, for the love of God, stop asking people if they’ve tried CBD oil.

Here’s something else: Someone I love asks me if I’d like to talk about it. In the space hollowed out for us, I finally do. I trace my body’s history with each scar that’s grown wide with my hips. I tell him about my surgeries, how my vision went white from pain the first time I bent my knees. How I screamed myself of age. I say “cerebral palsy” with a shaky voice that steadies after I say it once more. He listens and walks beside me, never flinching or shying away. I tell him about Special now, a little nervous.

“It’s a show. About a character who has what I have. He has CP.”

“Oh,” he says. “I’d like to watch it with you.”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally squirm at someone’s curiosity, at even the mention of CP. There is no elusive end goal where unbridled self-acceptance exists in a vacuum. But there is a sensation in staying open—in the placid ripple of a knot unraveled, cautious and unhurried in its gentle letting go. Here, I greet myself every morning and do my best.

We turn on Special, edging into that space between nerves and excitement. There, on the screen, I see myself in Ryan’s movements, in the tiny expressions that have made my bones. I feel myself pause the episode, arrested by this familiar body—to watch it reflected back to me. I press play. I keep watching.

***

Rumpus original art by Richelle the King.


Hilary Bell is a writer and filmmaker from Nashville, Tennessee. More from this author →