My Crooked Journey
Born and raised by Palestinian parents in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, Maysoon Zayid grew up spending summers at the West Bank. With one foot in Palestine and the other in the United States, Zayid’s bicultural upbringing exposed her at a young age to just how diverse the world can be. It wasn’t until she got to college, however, that Zayid fully grasped how her physical differences changed the way society viewed her. Zayid has cerebral palsy and, as she points out, people living with a disability comprise the biggest minority in the world and the only one you can join at any time.
As Zayid pursued a career in comedy, she began broadening her routines to address the rampant discrimination not only against Muslims in America but against the disabled on film and TV.
In addition to doing stand-up and advocacy work, Zayid now teaches comedy at her alma mater, Arizona State University, where she recently added her voice to the 3 Million Stories conference.
Note: Throughout this piece, you’ll hear excerpts from Zayid’s hugely famous TED talk. It’s been translated into 37 languages and viewed approximately 1 billion times. Excerpts from Maysoon's TED talk used courtesy of Creative Commons.
MY CROOKED JOURNEY WITH MAYSOON ZAYID—
From TED talk:
Maysoon Zayid: My name is Maysoon Zayid and I’ve Got 99 Problems and Palsy is Just One. If there was an oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal. I’m Palestinian, Muslim, I’m female, I’m disabled, and…I live in New Jersey.
Adam Kampe: Before her TED talk went viral, comedian Maysoon Zayid was labeled simply an “Arab comic post 9/11.” But now, she’s widely known as a comedian with a disability. Suddenly, her cerebral palsy defined her onstage and her online persona. And with that shift in perspective and the cyberbullying that followed, Zayid’s recalibrated her mission to combat discrimination against actors with physical disabilities. From comedian to advocate, hers has been a “crooked journey” and one that began with a pretty unique dream.
Maysoon Zayid: I always dreamt of being on the daytime soap opera “General Hospital” so I went to pursue my dream by studying acting at Arizona State University, and when I graduated and started auditioning it became really apparent to me very quickly that Hollywood shunned people who were others. And by others, I mean whether it was being a person of color, which I am, or being a person with a disability, which I am. I live with cerebral palsy and it’s a neurological disorder that causes me to shake all the time; it’s different in everyone but in my case I shake it, shake it, shake it like Taylor Swift but she just wants to and mine is involuntary. And I’m also not supermodel skinny so I added the fact that I’m a big-boned girl to the fact that I’m brown and disabled and quickly realized that Hollywood shunned people like me. And when I looked for people to identify with I saw the comedians. I saw Richard Pryor, Carol Burnett, Ellen DeGeneres, and I was like, “This is my way in. I’ll do comedy and then I’ll get cast on ‘General Hospital’” and I’m kind of still trying to get cast on “General Hospital.”
Adam Kampe: So when did you first become aware that you were “other”?
Maysoon Zayid: I didn’t become aware I was an other until I went to college at Arizona State University so I grew up extremely mainstream. My parents had sued the public-school system to force them to allow me to attend school, and they kind of made a deal where no matter how I got hurt the school would never be responsible. So I was mainstreamed. I’ve had the same best friends since I was five years old; they’re still my best friends. I was never bullied. I was never made fun of. It’s something that’s very intriguing to me as an adult, because after my TED Talk I had a lot of people with disabilities reach out to me worldwide. There’s a recurring theme among younger people with disabilities of being shunned, bullied, mocked, stared at, and that simply wasn’t my experience. So I kind of grew up in a bubble and it was fascinating because when I went to the Middle East, I was also treated as an equal. Disability in the Middle East is viewed through a different lens, because you’re in wartime countries where it’s much more mainstream so I was just never “other’d.” And then I went to Arizona State University I’ll never forget the moment: I had an English teacher come up to me and really loudly say, “Can you read?” and I was like “Of course I can read. I’m in college.” I realized that I didn’t know if she was thought I was deaf or if I had an intellectual disability, but she was yelling in my face, and that was the first time I realized that something was going on. And then I went into the acting department. I grew up in a time where ADA was brand new, it was only like ten years in, and the teachers were very vocal about the fact that I had a disability and that it wasn’t convenient for acting. But I lucked out and I found an amazing mentor at Arizona State named Marshall Mason. And he really advocated for me and believed in me and helped me return my confidence so that when I went out into the world of Hollywood, which college had very much reflected, I was prepared for the rejection that I was going to face simply because I have a disability.
Now, 20 years later, Hollywood has not improved at all. People with disabilities are so hard to find on television. I was a full-time contributor on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” and when he went to ESPN and I tried to find another job in cable news, it became apparent to me that when you turn on your TV you don’t see daytime talk-show hosts with disabilities. Shows like “The View” have had every type of woman you can imagine, but they’ve never had people with a visible disability be a guest cohost or a cohost. We have no way of knowing how many people with invisible disabilities are on television, because the stigma is so strong that they’re afraid to admit it. So when you look at TV, you rarely see disability, and when you do it’s able-bodied actors playing disabled, which we in the disabled community find extremely offensive. We believe that visible disability, like race, cannot be played, and that actors need to start turning down these roles. But as recent as this season, NBC just introduced a show called “Superstore,” and it was applauded for all the diversity—and the wheelchair character is not an actual wheelchair user. Why would NBC deny that opportunity to a person of color in a wheelchair, when we have so few opportunities as is? Why is the go-to to have able-bodied actors?
And I know I’ve talked for a really long time but I have to mention Oscars So White. When Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the academy, released her statement about diversity, she left out disability. What a glaring omission, considering how much the academy loves to give Oscars to able-bodied actors who play disabled on the screen. To shun us, to leave us out as part of the definition of diversity in her well-worded statement, was very telling.
Adam Kampe: Ok. Do you recall when you realized, “wait a second, I’m kinda funny?”
Maysoon Zayid: So I was a total drama queen at ASU. I’m currently at ASU as a guest comedian-in-residence, and I’m shooting this web series called “Advice You Don’t Want to Hear.” Each week we shoot in a place that I used to cry on campus; I call it my preferred weeping spot. I was such a drama queen; I had no idea I was funny. So when I went into the comedy class, I went in because I was like “This is how I get on ‘General Hospital.’ I’m just going to play along.” There are people who learn how to do comedy, (I know this because I teach comedy), and there are people who are naturals, and I was a natural. I had no idea until I stood up on stage my first day of comedy class at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City and tried to tell jokes, and the audience went wild. And I did not become well known as a comic [but] as a comic with disability. I was known for being an Arab comic post 9/11, so the shift after my TED Talk of being so attached to the word “disability” and identified as a disabled comic and having my work dismissed and having people say, “If she wasn’t disabled, no one would ever laugh at her,” was so confusing. Having built an entire career as the Arab chick, the Muslim chick doing comedy in New York City post 9/11, to be shifted to having everything I’ve ever done dismissed as a freak show was a really interesting time in my life.
TED TALK EXCERPT
And I’m not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was. He cut my mom six different times in six different directions suffocating poor little me in the process. As a result, I have cerebral palsy which means I shake all the time. Look. (breathes heavily). It’s exhausting. I’m like Shakira Shakira meets Muhammad Ali. CP is not genetic. It’s not a birth defect. You can’t catch it. No one put a curse on my mother’s uterus. And I didn’t get it because my parents are first cousins, which they are….
The most important part of my work is doing the work in media, because Maysoon’s Kids, is it’s a charity that tries to mainstream children with disabilities into the Palestinian public-school system. The reality is that the great god of the world is television and entertainment, and until we change the image of people with disabilities in entertainment, I will constantly be having to battle to mainstream disability worldwide. So I think that these things go hand-in-hand. The one that does trump the other is this uphill battle of trying to humanize mainstream disability in entertainment, because in my TED Talk I talk about the abuse that I suffer online and the mocking that my disability has gotten from people on my clips.
TED TALK EXCERPT
I would look at clips online and see comments online like, “yo, why she tweaking?” “Yo, is she retarded?” Or my favorite. “Poor Gumby-mouthed terrorist; what does she suffer from. We should really pray for her.”
And I think that the abuse of people with disabilities that happens in the real world the United States of America has a day of mourning for people with disabilities. When a mother kills her autistic child or a parent kills their kid with cerebral palsy we call it things like mercy killings. We excuse these parents. We talk about them being at the end of their rope and we would never defend any other person murdering a child yet we defend it when it’s a person with a disability. And I think that if we don’t change the image of disability on television, if we continue to not represent the largest minority in America that violence towards our community will continue, bullying will continue, lack of acceptance will continue, lack of accommodations, accessibility and mainstreaming will continue, and it has a ripple effect throughout the world. So I think really the most important work I do is trying to mainstream disability in entertainment and media.
Adam Kampe: That’s comedian and advocate, Maysoon Zayid. If you missed it, check out her TED Talk at Ted.com. Search “I’ve Got 99 Problems and Palsy Is Just One.” A billion people can’t be wrong. Special thanks to TED.
Excerpts of the following instrumentals by Podington Bear and used courtesy of the Free Music Archive at freemusicarchive.org: “Budsbursting,” “Triste,” and “Grace”
Other excerpts by Dave Depper, and used courtesy of the Needle Drop Co.
“Coming into Focus,” “Swagger,” and “All the Pieces Come Together.” You can find out more at needledrop.co
For the NEA, I’m Adam Kampe.
*Excerpts from Maysoon’s TED talk used courtesy of Creative Commons. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/