My name is Maysoon Zayid, and I am 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. It’s exhausting. I’m like Shakira, Shakira meets Muhammad Ali.
And I don’t want anyone in this room to feel bad for me, because at some point in your life,you have dreamt of being disabled. Come on a journey with me. It’s Christmas Eve, you’re at the mall, you’re driving around in circles looking for parking, and what do you see? Sixteen empty handicapped spaces.
This was before 9/11 and before politicians thought it was appropriate to use “I hate Muslims” as a campaign slogan. The people that I grew up with had no problem with my faith. They did, however, seem very concerned that I would starve to death during Ramadan.I would explain to them that I have enough fat to live off of for three whole months, so fasting from sunrise to sunset is a piece of cake.
But one miracle cure we did find was yoga. I have to tell you, it’s very boring, but before I did yoga, I was a stand-up comedian who can’t stand up. And now I can stand on my head. My parents reinforced this notion that I could do anything, that no dream was impossible, and my dream was to be on the daytime soap opera “General Hospital.”
Every time I did a scene from “The Glass Menagerie,” my professors would weep. But I never got cast. Finally, my senior year, ASU decided to do a show called “They Dance Real Slow in Jackson.” It’s a play about a girl with CP. I was a girl with CP. So I start shouting from the rooftops, “I’m finally going to get a part! I have cerebral palsy! Free at last! Free at last!Thank God almighty, I’m free at last!” I didn’t get the part.
But instead, I remained a glorified piece of furniture that you could only recognize from the back of my head, and it became clear to me that casting directors didn’t hire fluffy, ethnic, disabled actors. They only hired perfect people. But there were exceptions to the rule. I grew up watching Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr, Ellen, and all of these women had one thing in common: they were comedians. So I became a comic.
In 2003, my brother from another mother and father Dean Obeidallah and I started the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, now in its 10th year. Our goal was to change the negative image of Arab-Americans in media, while also reminding casting directors that South Asian and Arab are not synonymous.
So I looked at the stage manager and I’m like, “Excuse me, can I have another chair?” And she looked at me and she went, “Five, four, three, two …” And we were live, right? So I had to grip onto the anchor’s desk so that I wouldn’t roll off the screen during the segment, and when the interview was over, I was livid. I had finally gotten my chance and I blew it, and I knew I would never get invited back. But not only did Mr. Olbermann invite me back, he made me a full-time contributor, and he taped down my chair.
(Laughter) People say children are cruel, but I was never made fun of as a child or an adult.Suddenly, my disability on the world wide web is fair game. I would look at clips online and see comments like, “Yo, why’s she tweakin’?” “Yo, is she retarded?” And my favorite, “Poor Gumby-mouth terrorist. What does she suffer from? We should really pray for her.” One commenter even suggested that I add my disability to my credits: screenwriter, comedian, palsy.
The doctors said that I wouldn’t walk, but I am here in front of you. However, if I grew up with social media, I don’t think I would be. I hope that together, we can create more positive images of disability in the media and in everyday life. Perhaps if there were more positive images, it would foster less hate on the Internet. Or maybe not. Maybe it still takes a village to teach our children well.
My crooked journey has taken me to some very spectacular places. I got to walk the red carpet flanked by soap diva Susan Lucci and the iconic Loreen Arbus. I got to act in a movie with Adam Sandler and work with my idol, the amazing Dave Matthews. I toured the world as a headliner on Arabs Gone Wild. I was a delegate representing the great state of New Jersey at the 2008 DNC. And I founded Maysoon’s Kids, a charity that hopes to give Palestinian refugee children a sliver of the chance my parents gave me. But the one moment that stands out the most was when I got — before this moment —
<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/buRLc2eWGPQ” frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen></iframe>