themighty logo

My Thoughts on Netflix's 'Special' as a Lesbian With Mild Cerebral Palsy

As someone with cerebral palsy (CP), having my disability represented on TV happens very rarely. Even if there is a character with CP in the occasional show, they are usually in  a wheelchair, which is in stark contrast with my experiences as someone who has very mild CP. When I saw the preview for “Special” on Netflix, I was in disbelief that the show not only stars a 20-something guy named Ryan who has mild cerebral palsy, but he is also gay!

While “Special” was limited in the character development and story arcs it could take on because it only has 15-minute long episodes, the show included powerful scenes filled with honest depictions of life with CP. Here are five of my reactions to the first season of “Special” as someone with mild CP who also identifies as gay.

1. Coming out as someone with CP can be a real hurdle, and can be harder than coming out as gay.

While I have never pretended I was in a car accident in order to cover up my CP, I agree with Ryan’s assessment that coming out as someone with mild CP is harder in many ways than coming out as gay – though of course this isn’t true for everyone! Ryan spends the season coming to terms with how to embrace his CP and be honest about his disability with his coworkers, friends and love interests. The season depicts this challenge in a lighthearted but also multi-layered way.

2. The sex scene in episode three was one of the most honest and powerful depictions of sex I have ever seen.

The scene where Ryan loses his virginity to a sex worker named Shay made me cry because it was so compassionate, layered, wrought with excitement and uncertainty, and honest. At his best friend’s goading, Ryan enters Shay’s room with a suit on and a nervous smile. Shay is patient with him, helps Ryan take off his clothes, massages his body to relax his muscles, and is gentle as he enters Ryan’s body. The two men problem-solve how to move Ryan’s legs in a way that doesn’t hurt him. The scene depicts the complexities of having sex with CP in an honest way – sometimes it will involve communicating, pausing and trying out different techniques.

Having sex with a disability can be a taboo topic because people with disabilities are often seen as “sexless,” but with a supportive partner, sex can be easy and a wonderful experience for both people. I applaud Netflix and “Special” for airing a scene this raw and real.

3. The isolation Ryan feels is incredibly relatable.

Throughout the show, Ryan yearns for friends and a boyfriend. In episode four, he excitedly invites his three friends from college to his new apartment for a housewarming party, only to have them cancel right before the party is supposed to start. He later admits that he has never really had a friend before.

Having a disability can be incredibly isolating and often makes it hard to build lasting friendships – especially when you live with a parent or caretaker. “Special” depicts this in a variety of meaningful interactions Ryan has with other characters. In episode six, Ryan tells his mom that his crush “is not a jerk if he doesn’t want to date me. He’s just aware of how the world works.” In Ryan’s eyes, he expects no one will want to date him as someone with CP. Sadly, this is a belief many people with disabilities have, and it can take years to overcome these fears.

4. The show beautifully portrays the difficulty in mediating how to ask for help while finding your own independence.

Throughout the season, Ryan is balancing how to ask for help while also seeking his own independence. For example, he insists on assembling an end table without his mom’s help, only to hire someone to build it for him. In one particularly emotional scene, Ryan tries to shrug off the assistance of a well-meaning crush who tries to help him tie his shoes. This results in Ryan kicking him away and falling to the ground.

It is challenging to maintain your independence when you have a disability that limits your ability to do day-to-day functions. This can be a hard reality to face, especially when you are in your 20s like Ryan. I appreciate how the show mediates between these two realities and that it shows how frustrating it can be.

5. Having mild CP comes with its own unique

In the very first episode of the show, Ryan tells his physical therapist that he wishes he was in a wheelchair like a fellow patient in the office. He elaborates that he often feels like he is in limbo because his disability is mild, so he does not fit in with the other people with disabilities, but he also doesn’t easily relate to able-bodied people. As Ryan spends the season trying to find his own independence and tackle his internalized ableism, we see him struggle with living in the in-between space of having a mild disability. This is something I am still trying to navigate too, and the show depicted it beautifully.

I appreciate Netflix for providing a platform to tell this unique story.