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'I'm disabled. Google it': The star of Netflix's Special is done making you feel comfortable

Writer and actor Ryan O'Connell joins the Chosen Family podcast to talk about his experiences as a gay man living with cerebral palsy.
Ryan O'Connell is the star and creator of Special — a Netflix comedy series about a young gay man who is struggling to come to terms with his cerebral palsy. (Sarah Walker)

Ryan O'Connell spent 28 years in the closet about his cerebral palsy.

Now the writer, actor and disability advocate is aiming to smash stereotypes through his semi-autobiographical Netflix comedy series Special.

O'Connell plays the main character Ryan Hayes, a gay man with cerebral palsy in his mid-20s.

Hayes decides to break out of his comfort zone through a series of firsts — first job, first apartment, first sexual encounter — in hopes of owning his identity and finally creating the life he wants.

O'Connell spoke to Chosen Family hosts Thomas Leblanc and Tranna Wintour about his groundbreaking show and the challenges of dating while living with a disability.

O'Connell was in the closet, twice

Special is a show about "people struggling to live their truth and their authentic selves," says O'Connell.

He wrote the show after spending 17 years in the closet as a gay man and 28 years closeted about his cerebral palsy.

During this time, he went to great lengths to make people feel comfortable around him. 

"This is what every minority or marginalized person goes through without realizing it — how much of our existence revolves around making everyone around us feel comfortable."

After coming out as disabled, O'Connell says he no longer cares about other people's perception of him and it opened up his life in unexpected ways.

"When I came out about being disabled, I just didn't give a shit. Truly it was like, 'I'm disabled. Google it, bitch.' And then once I started doing that, life just kind of opened up for me in a really new, exciting way." 

Navigating dating and hook-up culture with a disability

Ryan O'Connell is the first guest on the latest season of Chosen Family, a conversational podcast from CBC.

While O'Connell was hiding his disability, he remained celibate for long stretches of time. Navigating dating was challenging because he was unsure how to present his disability to the world. For years, he opted out of dating altogether.

"I don't want to say on [dating apps] that I have a limp, because I truly don't think it's that big of a deal," he said.

"It doesn't really impact my life, but I don't want anyone to go on a date with me and feel lied to." 

Eventually O'Connell realized that his disability did not hinder his dating life if he showed confidence and authenticity.

"Even if you're not the best-looking person in your eyes or have the best body, you can walk around like you do. People are so into that."

Sex workers can provide a safe space to explore sexuality 

When O'Connell later met his boyfriend, he knew he wouldn't be able to subscribe to monogamy. Having been in the closet for so long, he felt that he had a lot of catching up to do. 

But he didn't want to get into emotionally complicated territory with friends, so he hired sex workers as a way to explore his sexuality. 

"I feel very fulfilled in my relationship emotionally; I don't need [more of] that. I just want someone who I can explore my body with, who won't judge me, who understands sexuality — all that stuff," he explained.

O'Connell uses Special to show a side of sex work rarely depicted on mainstream television. In one tender, moving scene, Ryan Hayes loses his virginity to a sex worker.

You can listen to Ryan O'Connell's Chosen Family interview on your favourite podcast app or right here: 

Chosen Family is a conversational podcast hosted by two queer, cosmically-destined BFFs — Montreal comedians Thomas Leblanc and Tranna Wintour. The show airs every second week with deep and spontaneous conversations featuring renowned artists and up-and-coming creators. Season 2 begins June 19, 2019. 

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