Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 6, 2022

Maysoon Zayid weaves humor with activism at final MSE Symposium

By MICHELLE LIMPE | November 12, 2021

maysoon-zayid

COURTESY OF MICHELLE LIMPE

Comedian Maysoon Zayid encouraged audience members to use their voices.

Why should people be more like a disability? According to Maysoon Zayid, it’s because it does not discriminate and welcomes everyone regardless of age, ethnicity, class or religion. Zayid, a renowned comedian, actress and disability activist, gave her own stand-up comedy performance to the Hopkins community on Nov. 9 as the final speaker of the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium’s “Rebuilding Our Future” series. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Husain Hakim, MSE’s co-chair of programming, emphasized that the organization decided to invite Zayid because humor is a useful tool in discussing political issues. 

“As a Palestinian and someone who is disabled, she has faced a lot of barriers breaking into the industry. So not only is she really funny and has an interesting story, but she is able to comment on inequalities in society,” he said. “She really fits into the idea of continuing the fight for equality, especially on our campus where there have been many complaints about its inaccessibility.”

Throughout her performance, Zayid wove serious issues of disability rights into her personal stories and jokes. She introduced her disability to the audience as soon as she entered the stage by asserting that she was not drunk.

“For those of you who don’t know me, I am not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was. As a result, my brain got damaged. I have cerebral palsy,” she said. “Now, it’s different for every person. Some of us are nonverbal. Some of us are wheelchair users. In my case, I shake all the time. I shaketh like Taylor Swift.”

Zayid described what she considers perks of her disability, such as being able to skip the lines at Disneyland to ride Space Mountain 15 times.

As a Muslim, Zayid explained that she was always the designated driver because she does not drink due to her religion. However, she told a story about a police officer who pulled her over one night when she was driving her drunk friend home. The officer made her take a sobriety field test to determine if she was driving under the influence. 

Zayid noted that since she cannot walk straight due to her condition, she sang the alphabet backwards for them instead to prove her innocence. 

“They were so impressed that they clapped for me. What I didn't know was that I was lucky. [Up to] 50% of all Americans who are killed by law enforcement are disabled. We must do better. But doing better is not taking the police out of cities,” she said. “I just got back from Seattle, and they don’t have a police force. Boy, was it scary. I guess the convoluted concept is that there’s something in between and that’s something we need to find.”

She transitioned from talking about the issue of policing to a more personal discussion about her career, highlighting that she always dreamed of being on Broadway. 

“When I was 12 years old, I went to a symposium and they were teaching us a dance number. They went around the room and asked us about our dreams. One girl said that she wants to be a unicorn, and they responded ‘You go, girl,’” she said. “And then I said I wanted to be on Broadway. All I got was ‘Girl, you’re a cripple. Find another dream.’ In 2010, I tap danced on Broadway.”

Senior Aparajita Kashyap, who attended the event, described enjoying the intimate stories from Zayid’s life in an interview with The News-Letter. 

“I really appreciate the intersection and perspective that she has because she talks about different factors that have influenced her life and led her on this journey, which is really interesting to listen to,” she said.

Zayid continued explaining her path into stand-up comedy by discussing her college career at Arizona State University, where she studied acting. 

Through her experiences, she illustrated how disability discrimination was prevalent on her campus. Even if she was getting high grades, she was not getting cast in any of the performances — even for a show that featured a girl with cerebral palsy. 

“I limped to the head of the theater department and asked why I didn’t get a part I was literally born to play. She said that I couldn’t do the stunts,” she said. “Well, if I can’t do the stunts, neither can the fucking character. College was imitating Hollywood. Hollywood has a sordid history of casting nondisabled people to play [the] visibly disabled on screen.”

According to Zayid, the majority of disabled adults believe that just like race, disability cannot be played. She detailed that even if around 20% of the population is disabled, people with disabilities comprised around 2% of series regulars in 2018 primetime broadcast programming. Moreover, of top-10 TV shows in 2016, 95% of characters with disabilities were played by nondisabled actors

It took Zayid 10 years to get her big break on a show called Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, where she was invited to become a full-time contributor. However, when she initially got the offer, she hesitated for a moment because of the internet hate she received after her TV debut. 

“Olbermann and I never discussed my cerebral palsy because we were talking about politics, but the internet was not used to seeing a disabled person talk about anything except being disabled. So, they started to guess what was wrong with me,” she said. “Never be the person that causes another person to harm themself.”

She detailed that the comments ranged from speculations that she had Botox or that she was drunk to personal attacks on her race and faith, with commenters calling her derogatory and prejudiced names. 

Nevertheless, she knew that she was meant to do stand-up comedy and take the opportunity that life had presented her. 

“I thought, ‘Did I really want to go on TV and have thousands make fun of me?,’ and the answer was ‘Hell, yeah.’ I had spent 10 years busting my ass to get on TV,” she said. “Why would I let some douche covered in Cheeto dust stop me from pursuing my dream? Only you get to define you. You cannot let outside forces stop you from pursuing your dream. And if your dream turns into a nightmare, find another dream.”

Senior Caroline Cerilli, who is a disability activist and a big fan of Zayid, explained that she was excited to attend an event at Hopkins that drew attention to the disabled community in an interview with The News-Letter. 

“It’s really neat how she weaves her activism through her comedy. There were moments where you can’t tell if you are supposed to laugh or think at the same time,” she said. “Her comedy reaches people who may forget that disability is also a part of diversity.”

Zayid empowered audience members to advocate for their beliefs. 

“Say no to violence against women. I should not feel safer walking in a warzone than walking on an American college campus, and that’s the reality,” she said. “Say no to being an internet troll and say no to raising an internet troll. And finally, say no to being silenced. Your voice is your weapon against injustice. I beg you to use it.” 

Hakim expressed his pride at the turnout of MSE’s first in-person speaker series after the pandemic. According to him, the team struggled in the beginning as it shifted the symposium back to an in-person format. However, it strengthened its marketing efforts to encourage people out of the COVID-19 routine of staying indoors by stressing the value of the event.  

“These are real people who are out in the world doing real work to fight for justice. Gaining their perspective can tell you a lot more than just what you learn in the classroom,” he said. “Most of our stuff is serious, so we also seek to bring in someone like Zayid who is more casual and humorous.” 

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