One of Ryan O’Connell’s biggest pet peeves is when strangers on the street stop to ask him if he’s “OK.”
But O’Connell, a gay man with cerebral palsy, knows how he’ll answer that question once his Netflix comedy “Special,” which he writes, executive produces and stars in, drops on Friday.
“I can’t wait to point to my billboard right now and say, ‘I’m just fine,’” he told TheWrap.
The show, co-produced by “Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons, centers around what is essentially a younger and more sheltered version of O’Connell, Ryan Kayes — an aspiring writer who still lives with his overprotective mother (Jessica Hecht) and starts an unpaid internship at a new-age confessional blog called “Eggwoke.”
“Ryan kind of has the coming of age journey at 28-years-old,” O’Connell said. “He’s the boy in the bubble and then at the end of the pilot the bubble pops and he begins to navigate life for the first time.”
Based on his 2015 memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” the show borrows heavily from O’Connell’s own experience, and in a way mirrors the difficulties of actors, writers and creators living with disabilities.
After Kayes falls flat on his face in the show’s opening scene, a young kid stops to ask him if he needs any help.
“Hey you’re walking funny, you need to go the hospital,” the kid says.
Kayes politely explains that “cerebral palsy is a disability resulting from damage to the brain before, during, or shortly after birth and hourly manifested through muscular incoordination.”
The kid runs off screaming.
In another scene, Kayes pretends his limp is the result of a recent car accident, rather than disclose his disability at work.
Shows featuring people with disabilities are still a rarity in Hollywood, and O’Connell is keenly aware of the added pressure that comes with having a main character living with CP, who also happens to be gay.
“There’s always a burden of representation,” he said. “But a show cannot speak for an entire population of people.”
The last few years have seen several shows and movies featuring characters with disabilities, including ABC’s “Speechless,” about a family whose oldest son also has cerebral palsy, Netflix’s “Atypical” about a “highly-functioning” 18 year-old living with autism, “The Good Doctor,” an ABC drama about a socially awkward young doctor “on the spectrum,” and A&E Network’s “Born This Way,” which centers around seven young adults born with Down syndrome.
But while the number of women and people of color on and off camera has increased significantly over the last few years, people living with disabilities have been largely excluded from Hollywood’s push for diversity.
A 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that, despite those with disabilities representing nearly 20% of the country’s population, about 95% of characters with disabilities on television are played by able-bodied actors.
“I’m getting tired of performers with disability being a footnote in the discussion,” actor Danny Woodburn, a coauthor of the report, told TheWrap. “People look at disability from a very dated perspective.”
Woodburn, best known for playing Kramer’s friend Mickey Abbot on “Seinfeld,” said Hollywood still sees people with disabilities as “animalistic.”
“There has been more than one occasion when I was asked to bite someone on the butt,” Woodbrurn, who has dwarfism, said. “I wrote into my contract that there will be no biting.”
Actors whose characters triumph over physical or mental afflictions have long been awards season favorites. Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis, Holly Hunter, Jessica Lange and Tom Hanks have all won an Oscar for playing either physically or mentally challenged characters.
But in its 90 year history, the Academy has only recognized two disabled actors: Harold Russell, a disabled World War II veteran who won Best Supporting Actor in 1947 for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and Marlee Matlin, who in 1987 won Best Actress for her role in “Children of a Lesser God,” in which she played a young janitor at a school for the deaf who falls in love with a hearing speech teacher.
The debate over the inclusion of people with disabilities in Hollywood flared up recently after Bryan Cranston, an able-bodied actor, was criticized for taking the role of a disabled character.
Cranston defended himself saying that, “as actors, we’re asked to be other people, to play other people.”
But actors living with disabilities say Cranston missed the point.
“I’m not going to discount what Bryan said,” Matlin told TheWrap. “Bryan’s right. But I guarantee you that you’ll get an entirely different performance, an entirely more real performance, if you found a person who is an actor and who actually has the disability displayed in the film that he was in.”
Matlin, who has been advocating for people with disabilities for years, was chosen for her star-making role in “Children of a Lesser God” after a casting director from Paramount saw her performing a Chicago production of the play on which the movie is based. She said Hollywood needs to do more to give actors with disability a break.
“I was told that I didn’t deserve the Oscar because I was not acting,” she said. “I was a deaf person in a deaf role so how is that considered acting?”
Still, there are some signs that Hollywood is slowly coming around. The creators of Netflix’s “Atypical” responded to criticism that the show lacked representation of people living with autism by hiring more actors on the spectrum to play both autistic and “neurotypical” characters.
The Ruderman Family Foundation has also launched a campaign pushing studios and executives to audition more people with disabilities.
“I’ve heard dozens of stories about how inaccessible the auditions can be,” Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president, told TheWrap. “You see more TV shows and movies with African American actors, with Asian actors, Hispanic actors, you do not see that with actors with disabilities.”
O’Connell said he specifically sought out LGBTQ actors to play LGBTQ roles for the same reason.
“Is that because I think straight people can’t play gay? No,” he said. “But I know a lot of talented gay actors that don’t have the same opportunities as straight actors because they’re gay and that’s just the world we live in.”
“Hollywood loves to profit off the pain of marginalized people without giving us any opportunities,” he added.