“I’m a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey and if you don’t feel better about yourself maybe you should!”
Bligh : Full Name?
Maysoon : Maysoon Zayid.
Bligh : Hometown?
Maysoon : Cliffside Park, New Jersey.
Bligh : Occupation?
Maysoon : Comedian.
Bligh : Are you registered to vote?
Maysoon : Hell yea! I was a delegate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Bligh : How does that work?
Maysoon : There are elected delegates and there are appointed delegates. I was an appointed delegate who was representing my district on behalf of Hillary Clinton and then I became a Barack Obama delegate because I was a Clinton delegate.
Bligh : Were you a Hillary fan from the get go?
Maysoon : I was a Hillary fan for many, many years because Hillary has an incredible history with disability in America. She's a trailblazer.
Bligh : In what way is she a trailblazer?
Maysoon : So, Hillary Clinton was fighting for disability rights and education from the beginning of her law career. And it was something that she carried out through her community service and work as a First Lady. And there are people that Hillary Clinton helped that were working on her campaign 20 years later. So, not only was she a trailblazer but she incorporated disability into her campaign beautifully. And that's not something I see a lot of politicians do. She made sure to always mention disability rights when she went through the minority rights stuff. She was very aware of us in health care and in education. We have just always been a priority issue for her. But Donald Trump is WAY better with us crips. We get 40 acres and a mule!
And I have problems with Hillary too. You know I thought she should have divorced Bill in August before the election, he was dead weight and he dragged her down. I thought that she could have won the State of Michigan if she had been just a little bit more flexible on Palestine-Israel. I was her champion.
And every time she threw Palestine under the bus I was like, "Why? Why do you hate me??"
Bligh : So how do you become a delegate? I, admittedly, do not know the idiosyncrasies about that process.
Maysoon : I had been active in the Democratic Party since I was 18 years old. I've worked with every single corrupt New Jersey Governor except for Chris Christie. So I have worked with McGreevy, I worked with Corzine. And as they would all fall from grace I'd say "Well, nicest guy!” When Hillary ran in 2007 the Democratic Party actually asked me to be a delegate, and I know they asked me because they needed someone to lead the Disability Caucus.
Bligh : At 18 when you got politically involved, what was the impetus?
Maysoon : (long laugh) I'm Palestinian. So, I was born and raised in New Jersey but I am Palestinian by heritage. And if you're born Palestinian, you're born into politics. Because the entire Palestinian story is that we are denied rights and I was always an equality champion for Palestinian rights and I felt like the way that I could free Palestine was by getting involved in local politics. That's why I got involved. And then post 9/11, I focused on protecting minority rights for the Muslim and Arab communities. I wasn’t a disability advocate until 2014.
Bligh : Why did you not become a disability activist until 2014?
Maysoon : Well I'm an advocate, not an activist, and the difference is activists don't shower.
Bligh : This is a really informative interview.
Maysoon : I don't know the answer to that. I get asked that a lot and I don't know! I became a standup comic in 1999 and I knew that I wasn't getting cast on American television because I had a disability. So I had the thought, "Alright, nothing I can do about that! What's my solution?"
I had seen Richard Pryor, the original, shaking standup comic who used a wheelchair later in his career. And I thought, “Oh I’ll just do standup comedy!” I wasn't a comic, I was a serious dramatic actress, but I wasn't getting cast on soap operas or commercials, definitely wasn’t getting plays, not even getting cast as disabled characters in plays. So I started training in 2000, I had an amazing teacher at Caroline’s on Broadway named Mike Irwin, God rest his soul. Incredible comedian. I did my first standup routine and Mike looked at me and he goes, “What the hell is going on?” Because I was standing and swaying, not completely on mic and so I said, “Oh nothing I have cerebral palsy.” He said, “You have to tell the audience because if you don’t they’re going to think you're drunk, and if they think you’re drunk, they’re not going to laugh because they’ll think you’re disrespecting the audience.” So I said OK. And it wasn't that I wasn’t ready to deal with it. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was to the rest of the world. I grew up with the same best friends since I was five. They never made fun of me. They never belittled me or excluded me. Honestly, I didn’t really want to talk about cerebral palsy so that’s where my intro came from. My intro was, “I’m a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey and if you don’t feel better about yourself maybe you should.”
I didn’t realize the jokes I did about disabilities were pretty innovative, all my jokes were tied to sex. One of my famous disability jokes was, "I want to get married because there’s only so much fun a palsy chick can have putting in a tampon!” And then 9/11 happened and I'm immediately thrust into the spotlight as a New Yorker who's Muslim and Arab, post-9/11, who's loud and proud and trying to combat these negative images. I founded something called the New York Arab American Comedy Festival, now in its 15th year, with Dean Obeidallah. My comedy became political. I started going after George Bush and Dick Cheney. By the way, Mike Pence is one of Dick Cheney’s horcruxes. 100%. Look at the man’s eyes.
But I also got political in humanizing Arabs. So the whole idea of doing standup comedy was about my Dad, who was such a centerpiece of my work. I wanted to counter the image of these violent, oppressive Arab men. My father was this giant teddy bear of accessibility. The man who everyone wants to have as their Dad. It was about taking this image that had been turned into such a frightening stereotype and making it honestly the cutest, most loving guy.
Bligh: What was your “big break”?
Maysoon : So, I'm raging away in my career and I get a phone call and Keith Olbermann tells me to come on to his show. And I'm thinking, "This is great! As a comedian, this an amazing break." I end up being a full-time contributor on Keith Olbermann's show. Keith doesn't want to pigeonhole me, so he never talks disability with me because he wanted me to be neutral. He wanted to talk about Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, etc. This is when people started making fun of me online, and I realized that the disability was a much, much, much, bigger thing than I had ever admitted. I realize that I have no choice but to go on because I have to go on for the disabled kids who can’t. This is also around the time the internet starts to get more and more powerful, Twitter rises to prominence and I started getting disabled kids all over the world reaching out to me saying, "I never saw anything that resembled me", or "I never thought I could do any of these things." And, "I have parents who are extremely abusive, I didn't have parents cheering me on." I thought everyone's parents cheered them on! I thought everyone wanted to walk. I thought only lazy people with CP use wheelchairs. I thought that I could make fun of people with intellectual disabilities because there was like a disability hierarchy and I was like the queen of it - so it was OK to make Down's Syndrome jokes and intellectual disability jokes and all that stuff. All these people reaching out, I realized how much they needed a positive image. So, that's when I started doing disability advocacy. And I’ve been in shock for the rest of my life because people do not feel comfortable with us succeeding.
Bligh : Why is that?
Maysoon : From what I can gather, it really pisses off a non-disabled person to see a disabled person succeeding where they can't. So you would have people say, "She's only successful because she has cerebral palsy.”
Bligh : To cut you down.
Maysoon : Yes. And they'd say, “The only reason they're laughing is because they feel bad." And it's such an interesting twist because what they are implying is that the disability helps in Hollywood. And the reality is, it doesn't! And if you MUST be disabled you should be white and male.
Bligh : Can you tell us how you got the TED Talk with, you know, just over a casual 41 million views all over the world now?
Maysoon : I met a woman named Loreen Arbus who had seen me on Countdown and she said I reminded her of her sister Cookie who had had cerebral palsy and died when she was 26. Loreen’s family founded ABC television and she headed Showtime and Lifetime. I went to a cocktail party at her house where I met Pat Mitchell who runs TED Women. And then they gave me a TED Talk.
It’s been translated into 42 languages, and all of a sudden I don’t just have kids in America writing me, I have kids in Malaysia writing me, needing someone to talk to and relate with. So I built a team around me of other adults with disabilities who could help me and that's how my advocacy started. I created this online ohana of people that I knew in real life who were disabled, and not professionals, but could be someone to lean on because I can't have everybody lean on me.
Bligh : Was there anything illuminating from hearing from people with disabilities from all over the world, not just the US?
Maysoon : As we spoke to more people, and we researched we found out three things: 1) The assumption out there is that we do not exist. For some insane reason, you can still ask people, “Do you know someone with a disability?” and they will say no.
Bligh : I feel like everybody has, if you have a family, an extended group of people, a network or community, you know someone with a disability.
Maysoon : Yes, but most people would say, "No, I don’t."
"Do you have any friends?”
"No, I don’t."
"Would you date a person with a disability?”
"No, I wouldn’t."
So, there are two categories: we have visible disabilities and we have invisible disabilities. So, we have no idea how many people with invisible disabilities there are on TV or film because the stigma is so bad that even stars don't want to reveal it. Dan Ackroyd and Daryl Hannah both have autism. They waited 20 years into their careers to talk about that. They waited to become established first so that no one could stop their careers because of their disability...and then they disappeared. So even still.
So these are the fun yet shocking statistics:
- 50 percent of all people killed by law enforcement in America are disabled. 50. Percent. 50. We're half.
- 2% of all the images you see on television are people with disabilities.
- Of the 2%, 95% are played by non-disabled actors. 80% are men. 19% are women. 1% is black.
- 0 are LGBTQ.
- So we're 20% of the population.
- 1 in 3 households has a disabled person.
Yet, people still fear disability. There is a day called, "Disability Day of Mourning". Last year in the United States one thousand children were killed by their parents or caretakers that were disabled. And that's not a story that we talk about or hear about. When we do hear about it, the media gets it all wrong. And what they say is, "The mother was at the end of her rope,” or “She was terminally ill and she didn't know who would take care of her child," "She wanted to make sure that her child went to heaven." And I ask you, what other child's murder is ever justified by anything? When you murder a disabled child, people understand - and that is dangerous. In the United States right now, you can forcibly sterilize your daughter if she has cerebral palsy. They don't sterilize boys, they sterilize the girls. The reasoning being the sterilization keeps us smaller and easier to carry. Cerebral palsy is a spectrum- some people are non-verbal and some are wheelchair users. They forcibly sterilize the girls by removing their uterus and breast buds so they stay small and then they call them “pillow angels”, like they are not people.
Bligh : It's almost like when families try to "angel baby" all of their daughters. Like those ring ceremonies where the father--
Maysoon : The purity ring! This one one of the big fights out there right now, parents of kids with disabilities who are not disabled who think they are doing what’s best. The parents who think sterilizing their daughters will somehow help them not get raped.
And I was like, “You don't understand that pedophilia exists? That nobody cares if she has a uterus or breast buds? That this doesn't protect her from sexual violence?” Women with disabilities are three times more likely to be assaulted than their non-disabled counterparts.
So, I'm just a happy-go-lucky comedian, and all of a sudden I started learning all of this stuff, realizing that our voices are not out there. Which brings me full circle about why I am so passionate about Hillary Clinton. She never forgot to mention us. She spoke about our rights, and education, the prison pipeline for people with disabilities, and other talking points besides healthcare. Because, by the way, people with disabilities are sick of just being lumped into the argument for Medicaid. Yes, Medicaid is a huge issue, of course it is, but we are also fighting for accessibility. Why is a show like The View on the air for 20 years and they never had a visibly disabled co-host? Why do we have no presence in the media? If we’re 20% of the population why are there no disabled anchors on GMA, The Today Show, CBS This Morning?
Bligh : If you were could pinpoint why there isn’t any visibility, what would it be? Lack of education? What would you say is step one to change these numbers so that there is more visibility for people who are living with disabilities?
Maysoon : You have to acknowledge the fact that those people are missing, and you have to actively go look for them to fill that space. And I think you make people change by explaining to them the buying power of people with disabilities. We have the buying power of the entire country of China. Eight trillion dollars, untapped. And we have shown that when you put a disabled character on television, we watch. So Speechless is a hit, Breaking Bad is a hit. We're taking down Superstore, we're taking down The Good Doctor.
Bligh : Have you had experiences working in TV/film where your disability was not taken into account?
Maysoon : When I did my Adam Sandler movie, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, it was the first time I was on a giant movie set. So I wanted to make myself really small because I thought if I can show that hiring disabled people is easy, they'll hire more disabled people.
So I had a trailer, and with the trailers you just jump in and out of the door. It's really weird. You have to pull yourself up, like in a swimming pool, and then you jump out. So me and my personal assistant, Johnny Rad--he was rad-- he would stand outside the trailer and I would just jump like I was stage diving, and he would catch me, and then we'd go on set.
So Adam comes by one day and he sees what is happening and he says, "WHAT the hell is going on?" And I was like "Oh, Johnny is just catching me!" So he pulls over this giant union guy named Darrel and he says, "Build her stairs. Right now." And so we got on set and Adam asks me, "Why? Why didn't you just ask for stairs?" And I said I didn’t want to be high maintenance. And he goes, "Mariah Carey is in the other trailer! You are not high maintenance!” I will never forget that.
Bligh : What are you working on now?
Maysoon : My own television on NBC.
Bligh : Oh fuck yes! Tell me about the process thus far.
Maysoon : I’ve had the ability with my own show to push in positive ways for disabled people to receive the visibility they deserve on TV. People with disabilities are told that their movie will never get made if it doesn't have a star. I said no to big producers because I said I am not allowing my character to be played by a non-disabled actress. I’ve always said it doesn’t have to be me, but it does have to be a disabled actress. But this is a privilege I have because of my standup career. I can go to meetings and argue facts, prove I am worth the investment, and they will at least listen. You know, seventeen of the last twenty best actor Oscars went to men playing disabled characters. I will win you awards. I will open households that would never watch anything like this. And, because the disability was such a big issue and battle, the Muslim thing kind of slid by without anyone commenting…
Bligh : Ha! It’s like they could only fixate on one thing that seemed problematic!
Maysoon : Exactly! I have heard a lot of things in these meetings regarding the general public and their understanding of people with disabilities. I met one producer who said, "What if love heals her?”
Bligh : Oh. No. This harks back to what you were saying before, that there are only three versions of disability people want to see or have seen on television. 1) You’re healed 2) You come to terms with you disability, and what’s the last one?
Maysoon : "YOU CAN'T LOVE ME BECAUSE IM DISABLED!"
Bligh : Lord.
Maysoon : I have talked a lot, but I think it's really important to point out how bad this past year has actually been. I am disabled. I’m a woman. I advocate against violence against women. I teach at Arizona State University and NYU. I’m Muslim. I never get to rest. I feel like I woke up in January and there hasn’t been any rest since then. First, they go after healthcare, saying they’re going to strip people with pre-existing conditions of their insurance. Disabled friends of mine are scared they're going to lose Medicaid.
Then Betsy DeVos gets appointed and she doesn’t even know what IDEA is. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was created forty years ago to ensure that people with disabilities have access to free public education. On top of not knowing what it was, she has had a lot of negative things to say about disabled people. Then came the Muslim ban. I fly in from London on the day the Muslim ban is enforced and I get detained in Newark Airport for two hours. I am born and raised in New Jersey. I’ve been on a comedy tour for fifteen years, I flew two hundred eighty days last year. And the customs and border patrol guy, he goes, "I know you must think this is because of Donald Trump. It's not." And I was like, "Dude. I've been flying in and out of here since I was five! This is because of Donald Trump.” The President is actually posting fake videos from far-right organizations about Muslims. This has changed my life. I get death threats now.
Michelle : Wow.
Bligh : And that’s just from this last year, this change?
Maysoon : From July 2015. From the second he came down the escalator, something went batty. I had to have security in Ohio. I have to have security in Indiana. I have credible threats that have to go through cyberstalking FBI agents all the time. My comedy partner Dean and I compare our threats, and the difference is that mine always include sexual violence. Stuff like, “I’m going to rape you so your father honor kills you.” Number one-my father is in heaven. Number two- he wouldn’t kill me he would kill you. Number three- Oh my GOD this is so scary! I'm a public figure, and I don't know if you are real or not because you're hiding behind something, and I have no way of knowing if you happen to frequent the comic strip.
I go on stage now and I'm aware that there is a portion of this country who really considers me a threat. People were protesting me, claiming I was going to impose Sharia law on Arizona State University. Ok, well, that’s not how that works. There are all these people threatening me now, who really believe the Muslims lie to trick you into being comfortable around them so that we can take over. Right. So, this thing of me being a liberal is an act…that I’ve maintained for the past, you know, thirty YEARS.
Bligh : I know that you're Muslim, I know that you're a woman with a disability, but mostly, and I’m not trying to be rude, but you just seem real Jersey to me.
Maysoon : I am! People always ask me what part of my mixed minority status is the strongest and I always say Jersey!
Bligh : Who inspires you?
Maysoon : Oprah. My Dad. My cat, Beyoncé. I'm not even playing my cat inspires me, she's really funny. I love Mindy Kaling. And Beyoncé! OH MY GOD, THE REAL BEYONCÉ KNOWLES. How could I forget?? Beyoncé so inspires me. All I want to do in life is to get lunch with her once.
Bligh : Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Maysoon : YEAH! To me, feminist means equality.
Bligh : How do you lift up other women?
Maysoon : I never, ever, ever compete. I never think that there's only room for me. I want every single one of them to succeed if the talent is there, and the heart and soul is there. There's room for me, there's room for you and that's how it's going to be.
Bligh : FUCK YEAH!
Anna : CAN I GET AN AMEN!
All images © Michelle Kinney Photography (Minnie Kinney LLC)