Comedian and activist Maysoon Zayid spoke to a packed crowd Sept. 21 in Derryberry Hall Auditorium about her journey as a Muslim comedian with cerebral palsy.
“I shake it like Taylor Swift, but she likes to shake where mine is involuntary,” Zayid said.
The talk, which took the audience through her upbringing as a Muslim with cerebral palsy living in New Jersey to becoming an accomplished activist, actress and comedian, mixed humor with serious topics such as racism, inequality and the stigma of disabilities.
She described her New Jersey community as having “33,000 Italian Catholics and six Arabs.”
“My friends would take me to midnight mass and they’d say ‘Maysoon is from where Jesus is from’ and I’d say ‘I’m from New Jersey,’” Zayid said.
Zayid later gained notoriety performing in the CBS soap opera “As The World Turns.” She quickly learned that playing a character with a realistic depiction of a disability on TV was nearly impossible. Zayid claimed that 2 percent of characters on TV have a disability, while 95 percent of those roles are played by non-disabled actors and actresses.
“There is no shame in not walking, or having any disability,” Zayid said. “Visible disability cannot be played by those who don’t have one.”
Zayid quickly turned to comedy as the outlet for her creativity. After doing comedy for 10 years, she was asked by Keith Olbermann to appear on his show, “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” launching her into the spotlight as a voice in activism. Zayid said that after her appearance, viewers reacted online, which produced myriad responses, many negative.
“Words matter,” Zayid said.
Since that appearance, Zayid has bounced between performing stand-up and practicing activism.
A student during the audience Q&A asked about the stigma of mental health in entertainment.
“We see mental health being scapegoated and blamed for hate,” Zayid said. She also said that there needs to be honest portrayals of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Zayid also spends three months a year at refugee disability camps in Palestine teaching arts programs to disabled and homeless children.
Zayid ended the hour-long talk by championing equality for all.
“Your voice is your weapon against injustice – use it,” Zayid said.