“I have cerebral palsy, which means I shake all the time. It’s exhausting. I’m like Shakira meets Muhammad Ali.”
And that’s how Maysoon Zayid kicked off her rousing talk at TED talk, which has now been viewed over six million times. Maysoon, a Palestinian Muslim actress/comedian with cerebral palsy, is hoping to create more positive images of disability in the media and in everyday life. And humor is her best weapon.
That’s not all she’s doing either. In 2001, she launched Maysoon’s Kids, a scholarship and wellness program for disabled and wounded refugee children. Her latest program, Feed a Mind, just kicked off an Indiegogo campaign last week. She’s hoping to launch a classroom for kids in Palestine with disabilities who have been rejected from the mainstream school system.
Maysoon didn’t start off as a comedian. She actually headed to Hollywood to become an actor. But she discovered casting directors didn’t really hire disabled actors (even for disabled characters) and she turned to stand-up comedy. As she told the BBC, “It became very obvious to me that a fluffy ethnic disabled chick was never going to get a job unless she did stand-up.”
The move paid off. She’s considered one of America’s first Muslim women comedians and the first person ever to perform standup in Palestine and Jordan. In 2003, she co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which showcases Arab-American comics, actors, playwrights and filmmakers and is still going strong in its eleventh year. She had a notable role in Adam Sandler’s movie Don’t Mess With the Zohan and was a regular contributor on Countdown with Keith Olbermann.
What she’s done is impressive and inspiring. And she’s using her influence and credibility to help others with disabilities.
It’s not a moment too soon. Over 50 million people in the US have a disability. As Maysoon points out in her TED talk, “People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment.”
Hollywood doesn’t necessarily shy away from creating films or TV shows about disabilities — but when they do, they just can’t seem to cast accordingly. There are exceptions (Michael J. Fox, Marlee Matlin, RJ Mitte) but the default is to find an actor who can portray the disability. (John Hawkes in The Sessions, Kevin McHale on Glee.) Maysoon is hoping to change that.
“The fact that characters with disabilities are still played [almost exclusively] by able-bodied actors is obscene,” she told Rolling Stone last year. During her college years, she remembers auditioning for a play in which the lead character had CP. “My big break!” she thought. She was shocked and confused when a non-disabled actor won the part. She immediately confronted the organizers of the play who explained they were afraid she wouldn’t be able to do the stunts. “If I can’t do the stunts, then neither can the character!” she told them. And she’s been on quest to change the perception of disability ever since.