Comedian Maysoon Zayid Talks Changing The Story For People With Disabilities


Comedian Maysoon Zayid interview

This year, we started a series of takeovers on our Huda Beauty channel to share stories that celebrate the beauty of people and communities that are not always recognized. Today, we’re privileged to bring you the story of hilarious comedian, Maysoon Zayid, in honor International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Maysoon lives with a neurological disorder called Cerebral Palsy, which causes her to shake. She’s on a mission to create more visibility and positive images of people with disabilities in the media, with the belief that “Seeing positive images of disability on screen can save lives.”


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Her goal and her incredible projects are very much aligned with the aims of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which promotes the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development. After all, approximately 15% of the world’s population live with some form of disability, and as Maysoon points out, “anyone can become disabled at any time.” Advocacy for disabled people is equality for all. (Find out more about how this day and the UN are fighting for disability inclusion on a global front here.)

We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to ask her about her journey, comedy, self-love, and her goals for the future. Today, we’re proud to share her story with you.

1. Tell us about your disability and how it has shaped you?

My disability is called cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that is caused by trauma in utero or during or shortly after the birthing process. Basically, it is brain damage that affects the part of the brain that controls coordination. In my case, the doctor who delivered me in the United States was drunk. I lost oxygen at birth which caused my cerebral palsy. CP manifests itself differently in everyone. Some of us are wheelchair users, some of us are nonverbal. In my case, I shake all the time. Also, I can walk, I can dance, but I cannot stand up. I tip right over. It sounds much more fun than it actually is.

2. Tell us a bit about your experience as a person with a disability and how that affects the way that you move throughout the world?

I was very blessed and lucky to be raised by parents who did not mourn the non-disabled child they did not have and instead supported me and cheered me on in my journey. My parents were opposites. My dad was my biggest cheerleader, and my mom had no mercy. She treated me exactly the same as she did my three older sisters. I am happy she did. Had she gone easy on me, I would never have survived Hollywood. My dad dedicated himself to teaching me how to walk. He would wake up every morning 2 hours early to do exercises with me before I went to school. He made it fun and I honestly didn’t realize my disability was a big deal until I got to college. I was never bullied, and I was never made fun of even though I was the only visibly disabled kid in school growing up. I have the same best friends today that I had in kindergarten. I hear so many stories about disabled kids being bullied, discriminated against, and excluded. But that was not my experience. I believe my disability was integral in my quest to become a celebrity. My parents couldn’t afford physical therapy, so they sent me to tap class. Instead of occupational therapy, I played piano. The world was my stage, and it is why I pursued my career in entertainment.


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3. You’ve also spoken about your heritage as a Palestinian-American woman (your parents sound like a true pillar of strength and inspiration) how does this coupled with having cerebral palsy alter your experiences?

Spending my summers in Palestine shaped me more than any other experience in my life. Even though I was the only person of color, other than my sisters, in my school in America growing up, I was not discriminated against. In Palestine, I witnessed and experienced armed conflict and violent bigotry firsthand. It made me understand from a very young age that I was extremely privileged. It also made me adamantly pro-equality. I do a joke about how disability does not discriminate. You can join us at any time regardless of race, religion, age, gender, economic class, or who you love. And I have decided to be like disability. I believe in and nonviolently fight for equality for all. I am for a one-state solution where everyone is equal from the river to the sea, regardless of faith or lack thereof.

I think my sense of humor developed in Palestine. When I would go back in the summer, there was no Internet and no TV. I would sit with my grandmothers and my aunties as they cross-stitched and gossiped. They were hilarious, and I think that is where I learned to be a storyteller. It was also where I first met visibly disabled kids other than me. It was how I knew I wasn’t alone in the world.

Spending my summers in Jerusalem also taught me Arabic. I never like to claim first, but the history books say I was the first person to ever do standup comedy in Palestine and Jordan. I love doing jokes in Arabic. It is such a fabulous language to play with. I still go back every year. I shoot my web series, “Advice You Don’t Want to Hear,” in Palestine to show the world it is more than just bombed-out buildings. I own a home there, and someday, I hope to live there inshallah.


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4. How did you get into comedy, and how do you use it as a form of self-expression?

My dream in life since I was five years old was to be on the daytime soap opera “General Hospital.” I pursued that dream by studying theater. First at Arizona State University, then after graduating, I attended the acclaimed Neighborhood Playhouse. There was one problem, people on American television did not look like me. Disabled people are 20% of the population, but we are less than 5% of the images you see in media. Of those 5%, the majority are played by non-disabled actors. It became very clear to me as I auditioned that no one was going to cast me. Where I did see people who looked like me was the world of standup comedy. Specifically, Richard Pryor, who was a comic of color and shook just like me. I took a comedy class at Caroline’s on Broadway in New York City, and I was a natural. A year after I started, 9/11 happened. Up until that moment, my comedy was just about making people laugh. Post-9/11, I joined forces with fellow Palestinian-Sicilian comedian Dean Obeidallah. We founded the New York Arab American Comedy Festival to combat the negative images of Arabs and Muslims in American media. We also wanted to remind Hollywood that we were more than just terrorists and taxi drivers. Arab Americans were the godfathers of comedy, from Danny Thomas to Jamie Farr to Wendie Malick.


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I always mentioned my cerebral palsy in my standup because if I didn’t the audience would think I was drunk or nervous, but it wasn’t a major part of my content until after I did my TEDTalk. Time to brag: I had the most viewed TEDTalk of 2014. It was translated into 42 other languages. As a result, disabled people of all ages worldwide reached out to me. I was shocked to learn about the violence, bullying, and discrimination my community faced worldwide including in the United States of America. That is when I started doing much more material on disability and I became a disability advocate. I lovingly call the disability community the DisCo, and I am fighting for our equal rights worldwide. That includes my mission to make sure that disabled students, whether their disabilities are visible or invisible like mental health issues, chronic pain, or intellectual disabilities, have access to a free education. I am an advocate for mainstreaming because separate is never equal.

I am also on a mission to end the sordid practice of casting non-disabled actors to play visibly disabled on screen. It is inauthentic, offensive, and harmful. I believe comedy is the best way to talk about subjects that people fear. No matter what my message is, my #1 goal is still to make my audience laugh.

5. How does it feel to be breaking down boundaries as a woman comedian with a disability?

It’s exhausting. I am so sick of having to explain disability, having to explain being Palestinian and having to explain being Muslim to the powers that be. I know that if I was a cis-gendered, non-disabled, straight white man I would already have a comedy special on Netflix. Sadly, as the winner of the oppression Olympics, I’m still fighting for my spot. I am, however, happy to see improvements for the generation that is coming after me. The New York Arab American Comedy Festival has fostered dozens of incredible Arab comedians. Casting directors are finally listening when I say that, much like race, disability cannot be played. It is getting better. I just wish it wasn’t a constant fight, and for once, I could do my art without having to educate.

6. Tell us about your journey to where you are now? What have been some of the most pivotal moments for you?

Dancing school was extremely pivotal. I grew up before social media, so I didn’t know that the standing ovations I was getting at dance recitals were because I was pitied. I thought it was because I was amazing. This gave me the confidence I needed to become a performer. I don’t have stage fright. I’ve been on stage since I was 5. It is fun, not scary.


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Meeting my mentor Marshall W. Mason was also life-changing. He introduced me to my acting coach in New York, who was the first to recommend I try standup comedy.

The next pivotal moment was doing “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” Keith was also an amazing mentor. Every time I was on set with him was a masterclass in journalism. My fairy god mentor Loreen Arbus discovered me on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” She introduced me to Pat Mitchell, who gave me my TED Talk that completely changed my life and made me one of the most in-demand speakers in the USA. I still think TED should pay their speakers, but I cannot deny it was life-changing.

On a personal level, my sister being diagnosed with and surviving brain cancer was pivotal because while she was battling, I raised her children, who were three and six at the time. I have no children of my own, but I can still debate parents on their skills because I have limped in their shoes. Being married and divorced is also up there. I learned that I’m much better solo and that marriage is completely overhyped. Finally, the loss of my dad is by far my most defining moment. Having to get back on stage and make people laugh felt impossible, but I had no choice unless I wanted to end up in assisted living. Life is still incredibly boring without him, but the show must go on.


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7. What have been some of the toughest moments and how did you overcome them?

The toughest moment of my life was selling my dream sitcom to ABC Television and having it hijacked by a non-disabled, non-Muslim, non-funny woman. I did the impossible. I defied all the odds and was going to be starring as an empowered, disabled, romantic lead on network television. Unfortunately, the head writer refused to collaborate with me. The result was something we call inspiration porn – it’s when you use disabled people to make non-disabled people feel better. Her writing was also riddled with offensive Muslim stereotypes. I had no choice but to burn it to the ground. To this day, I am fighting to get one of my shows on TV or streaming. They say you only get one shot, inshallah, that’s not true. I am currently pitching a docuseries on disability, a Muslim Christmas movie, and a dramedy called Sanctuary. I got myself a sharp of an entertainment lawyer so that I am now head writer and executive producer on anything I create, and I will never be hijacked again.

8. How do you use your life experiences to inform your work as a comedian?

My standup comedy is almost 100% autobiographical. My life is the basis of my jokes.

Watch Maysoon’s incredible TED talk below – it was filmed in 2014 and became the most-watched TED talk that year with over 16 million views. Be warned you will cry and laugh, but finish feeling inspired… and totally in love with Maysoon.

9. What does self-love mean to you? How has your self-love journey evolved over the years?

Self-love was never hard for me. My dad spoiled me rotten, and then my comedy career took off so I could spoil myself. I am considered fat by Hollywood standards and it doesn’t bother me one bit. I do yoga every day and walk 3 miles with my mother, and I am still large. I don’t try to hide it; I dress it up. The same goes for my disability. I have never cared if someone didn’t want to date me because I was disabled. Their loss, not mine. I’m really missing the self-loathing gene. I just don’t have it. I would totally hang out with me if I wasn’t me. I’m not saying I’m flawless, there is always room for self-improvement, and I am very good at listening to critiques that are valid criticism and not hate speech masquerading as advice.

10. How do you like to show yourself love?

I love to go to Broadway shows, and I love getting my hair and makeup done. I also have a stylist, Engie Hassan. Working with her is the ultimate expression of love for myself. She makes me feel fabulous every time.


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11. You mentioned in your incredible TED Talk that people with disabilities are the largest minority in the world but the most underrepresented in entertainment. Why is creating more positive images of people with disabilities online and in the media so important?

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. If every disabled character kids see on screen is magically healed on the red carpet, the message you are sending is that we are not good enough. Seeing positive images of disability on screen can save lives. It helps to destigmatize and to humanize. We don’t just need disabled people on screen, we need them behind the scenes. When our stories are told through the non-disabled lens, we only get 1 of 3 plot lines… Disability intersects with every other community; we have so many more stories to tell. One of the most important reasons that disabled actors should play disabled characters is the fact that acting a visible disability is offensive. It is never convincing to people with those disabilities, no matter how many Oscar awards are doled out. It has got to stop. Extraordinary disabled talent exists, and we deserve a chance to tell our own stories.

12. Why is International Day of Persons with Disabilities important to you? What message would you like to share with our readers on DPD?

International Day of Persons with Disabilities is extremely important to me because disabled people worldwide face an enormous amount of violence and are denied access to education. We need to create a more equitable global community, and we need to find a way to stop armed conflict, which not only creates more disabled people but disproportionately harms disabled communities. My message is that anyone can become disabled at any time, that there is no shame in disability, and that we deserve equal rights and access to education, health care, and love.

13. What advice would you give to others with disabilities who want to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t try be like me. Be the best you that you can be. Don’t let anyone define you. Only you get to define you. Accept your disability. Learn as much as you can about it and learn how to live with it instead of wishing it would just disappear. It’s okay to have a bad day; you don’t always have to be happy and brave. It is also okay to admit there are things you cannot do. Focus your energy on the things you can, the things that make you happy that are within your ability. Don’t hide your disability. It is exhausting to do so, and there is no shame whether your disability is visible or not. Find other people with your disability to connect with. Social media is often mocked, but I have met more disabled people and learned more about disability from others like me online than anywhere in real life. If you’re on Twitter, check out the hashtags #disabilitytwitter and, of course, #disco. Learn to advocate for yourself and strive for independence, whatever that looks like for you.


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14. What are your goals and dreams for the future?

I’ve always dreamed of being the co-host on The View. That is my ultimate goal. They’ve never had a visibly disabled co-host in their history, and they have never had a Muslim woman. I think I could bring a much needed and totally different point of view to that show. I’d like to finally have a one-hour comedy special, and I want to find a home for my docuseries “Welcome to the DisCo.” In general, I want to be like Dolly Parton or Oprah – rich, famous, and with a heart of gold.


We are so grateful to Maysoon for sharing her story with us – head over to our @hudabeauty Instagram today to see her taking over our stories and find out more about her journey. Learn more about International Day of People with Disabilities and ways that you can take action and make a difference here.