The Power and Importance of Representation in Media

This past week, I can't tell you the number of times people have called, texted, or mentioned to me, Special on Netflix.

"Have you Seen it? What do you think of it? You should be on it!"

It has been such a fascinating experience. My favorite interaction to date was when I had Starbucks delivered by a Postmate. He handed me my coffee, lingered at my door for a few seconds, looked me dead in the eye, and said,

"Have you seen that show Special on Netflix? YOU SHOULD BE ON THAT SHOW!"

To which I responded,

"Wow. I never imagined the general population would be so willing to see someone who resembles a parking pass on their TV."

If you have been living under a rock, and you haven't seen nor heard of the show; the series is based on the memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Ryan O'Connell, who is a (fabulous) gay man, living with Cerebral Palsy. -- He also stars in, and is an executive producer, alongside Jim Parsons, and a handful of others.

The show itself is funny, real, and it is ground-breaking. It is the first time a disabled person has had the lead role in a written series. Ryan has spoken about the pressure he felt when making the show because of the responsibility of representation he felt, as one of the first disabled characters on TV.  -- The reality is, for many, Special may have very well been the first time the general population has seen someone who is gay or disabled in media, much less both.

After watching the show, and being able to identify as strongly as I did (as someone with Cerebral Palsy myself), it got me thinking on a deeper level.

Hollywood often is the place where people see things they don't otherwise see in their own lives. The entertainment industry has a reputation for being an ultra-progressive, liberal bubble which is not representative of the majority of the country or the world at large; but that's not as true as you might think. 

It was just five or so years ago when women were fighting for equality in the industry in terms of the pay-wage gap between their male counterparts. 

History shows that Hollywood is notoriously slow to show anything other than the stereotypical "pretty" white Barbie and Ken Beverly Hills type, or the exact opposite of that, to introduce an antagonist. 

But the people of the world are not Barbie and Ken who live in 90210; the people of the world are Jewish, Muslim, straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, disabled, fat, skinny, tall, short, rich and poor, or some combination of, all at once. 

That is the world. That is who we are. Knowing that Hollywood is a place of first exposure for many, there is an inherent responsibility to continue to show the world, and the people who live in it, as we are. 

I hope that the trend of accurate representation in Hollywood continues in 2019 and beyond, and I commend Ryan, his credible cast and crew, and Netflix for moving the needle.

Part IV: Let’s Talk About Sex (Disability Remix)

Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about you and me; let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be. 

Sex and disability; It’s a thing… although you wouldn’t know it based on the lack of representation in everyday society. I know that is a problem for some, particularly in the disabled community — but I don’t have that hang up. Because let’s be real, I don’t look like Shawn Mendez in Calvin Klein’s. I know that. Anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing me in my underwear knows that. I’ve accepted it. 

If I’m honest, I have never felt attractive, particularly in a sexual manner. I cannot fathom why anyone would have that level of interest in me, yet, I’ve done things with much hotter guys than I’ve had the right to, and I am not mad about it. (That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mess with my mind after all is said and done, but that’s just something I have to continually work through).

So, how does the whole sex thing work with a disability?

As is the recurring theme in this series, the answer is not universal. What works for me physically may not work for someone else, and because I can only speak for my personal experiences, I am choosing to focus on basic principles instead of specifics. 

Let’s get the basics out of the way:

  • When it comes to men with a disability, sometimes their boy bits function, and sometimes they don’t. 

  • Often times, there are physical limitations which can limit or prevent someone with a disability from doing certain things. 

  • Sensation: Some people have it, some people don’t. 

So, given all of these variables, how do you make it work?

None of these limitations mean neither of you can enjoy a sexual experience together; the all-encompassing answer is to have honest communication. If you have an interest in/are someone with a disability. Talk to your partner about what works, and what doesn’t; and if you don’t know, it never hurts to try. 

Side-note: When it comes to me personally, I don’t particularly like playing a thousand questions before we are in the moment. I’d prefer someone just follow their intuition, try what they want to try, and go from there. If it doesn’t work, I will tell you, and we will adapt. 

Not everyone has that approach; so it’s essential to have an understanding of the person you’re going to be with. It’s all about being aware. This should be true for everyone when having sex, but it seems to be a piece that is often missing. 

Beyond that, have reasonable expectations. Sex is not what we see on the internet. It’s not this glorious oiled-up moment of Roman God perfection. For anyone. Ever. This may be even more notable when disability is introduced; expect that, and be okay with that, but try not to treat the person with a disability as if they are made of glass — if they’re ready to have sex with you, they want to have as good of a time as you do; so don’t over-complicate it. 

If you need to find weird positions, do it. If you need to use pillows or props, do it. If you need to include some type of medical equipment or use the wheelchair, go for it. 

In the words of Tim Gunn,

“Make it work.”

Part II: Agreeing to Go on A Date With Someone With a Disability — The Hesitations

Is it okay to ask questions relating to the individuals disability?

Um. YES.

You’ve just agreed to meet someone with a disability (perhaps for the first time) in a social capacity; no one should feel they are taking a course in Workplace Diversity Training.

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