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Discrimination and Ableism in Entertainment

April 06, 2014

A Pakistani Muslim, female, New Jerseyan with cerebral palsy sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But when told by Maysoon Zayid, the joke is hilarious. The comedienne is garnering international attention for her stand-up comedy routines which cross geographic borders, faiths and physical barriers.

Affected by cerebral palsy, Zayid’s voice and body noticeably shake, but her beauty is almost overwhelming and her words are compelling. Within seconds, audiences are spellbound by her story and surprised at the laughter that tumbles out of their mouths as she recounts the horrors-turned-highlights of her life in order to combat discrimination and infuse the audience with a positive outlook.

In a recent TED Talk she explains that realizing the entertainment industry’s bias towards beautiful people helped set her on a path to comedy. In speaking about trying to get a role in a play – a character with cerebral palsy – Maysoon says, “This was a part that I was literally born to play and they gave it, they gave it to a non-palsy actress. College was imitating life. Hollywood has a sordid history of casting able-bodied actors to play disabled onscreen.”

Maysoon doesn’t accept ‘can’t’ as a state of mind, for which she thanks her family – her father in particular. In her TED talk she states: “A lot of people with C.P. don’t walk, but my parents didn’t believe in “can’t.” My father’s mantra was, “You can do it, yes you can can.” So, if my three older sisters were mopping, I was mopping. If my three older sisters went to public school, my parents would sue the school system and guarantee that I went too, and if we didn’t all get A’s, we all got my mother’s slipper.”

Since graduating from Arizona State University with a degree in Fine Arts, she has continued her family’s life philosophy and done some marvelous work to break down barriers that plague the disability arts community. After 9/11 and the resulting wave of Islamophobia, Maysoon founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival in 2003 with comedian Dean Obeidallah. The groundbreaking nature of the festival has received international acclaim. The festival is entering its 11th year, and highlights comics, actors, playwrights and filmmakers of Arabic and American descent.

Currently, Maysoon is touring solo and appears on an Arab-American radio show “Fann Majnoon” (translation: “Crazy Art”) with Dean Obeidallah. Her professional engagements throughout the U.S., Canada, and the Middle East fund approximately 80% of the work she does with Maysoon’s Kids. Currently Maysoon spends three months’ worth of time every year in the occupied West Bank of the Palestinian Territories working with kids who participate in her charity, Maysoon’s Kids.

The Guardian interviewed Maysoon as she was involved in running a part-week day camp for Palestinian children refugees with disabilities at Aida refugee camp. In addition to day camps, Maysoon’s Kids runs welfare programs as well as training sessions for parents and teachers of disabled children. From her personal website, she explains that “Maysoon’s Kids was founded in April 2001 to address the needs of the growing population of disabled children in Palestine.” Programs evolve to meet the changing needs of a region’s children in crisis and in the past have included:

– Art and wellness programs
– Summer camp lunch programs
– Eye exams and glasses
– Mommy classes
– Outfitting physical therapy centres
– Providing shoes & milk (locally made) for orphans
– University scholarships

Donations made through Maysoon’s kids may also go to support Playgrounds for Palestine, an incredible organization that builds playgrounds in the occupied territories.

Currently, Maysoon is in the process of adopting a child from the region. Even with the stringent criteria in place, she is determined to set precedents for this process that may ease other’s attempts. Generally, adoptive parents must be a heterosexual couple married 5 or more years with no biological children. At least 1 parent must be Palestinian. At least 1 parent must be Muslim. However, the rules for adoptive families for disabled Palestinian orphans are far more flexible. Contact Maysoon if you have enquiries in this regard.

Maysoon is also a prolific and intelligent writer, with a column in The Daily Beast and posts on the TED blog. You can catch up with Maysoon on Facebook while she changes the world, one child at a time.

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