Comedian and actress Mayzoon Zayid will firmly deny that she’s an inspiration to millions. But audiences who have witnessed the wit and charm she brings to her standup (and this TED talk) would disagree.
Outside of comedy, Zayid is a disability advocate. Living with cerebral palsy all her life, Zayid speaks candidly about what caused it. “When I was born, the doctor who delivered me was drunk, and I lost oxygen at birth, and the result was that I have cerebral palsy,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that controls muscle movement and coordination, affects more than a half million people in the United States differently. Many afflicted with CP experience involuntary shakes and tremors and sometimes lose their ability to walk entirely.
“In my case, I shake all the time, so I like to say I ‘shake it’ like Taylor Swift, but she just wants to ‘shake, shake, shake’ and mine is totally involuntary,” she jokes.
Zayid’s father taught her to walk when she was five. As a child, she never experienced bullying because of her disability but says living in the real world was a different story. “I didn’t realize having a disability was a thing until I got to college, and I realized that a lot of people feared it. A lot of people discriminated against me because of it.”
Despite having a knack for acting and performing, Zayid recalls her college theater troupe wouldn’t cast her in any of their shows. Her confidence levels plummeted even more so when she was turned down for a lead role in which the character has cerebral palsy. “I didn’t even get that part because they claimed I couldn’t get the stunts,” she says. “And that’s when I realized that the CP was working against me.”
Fueled by anger and frustration, she turned to comedy to air her grievances and prove to the world she could hold her own as a disabled person in the spotlight. Facing a largely an uphill battle to gain respect, she would recall her father’s mantra from childhood: “You can do it. Yes, you can-can.”
She adds, “It wasn’t about pretending that I wasn’t disabled. It wasn’t about forcing me to do the things I couldn’t. It was about letting me dream big and always, always allowing me to try before saying no.”
Zayid moved to New York City after college, where she dominated the comedy circuit, delivering flawless performances night after night. Her skill eventually landed her the opportunity to perform for one of her heroes, Muhammad Ali, an experience she says is the highlight of her career thus far.
Now with a platform to speak out, Zayid has made strides in bringing awareness to disability, especially in the entertainment industry, where she claims the disabled are grossly underrepresented. “The main focus is fighting against nondisabled actors playing disabled onscreen. People with disabilities are 20 percent of the American population. We’re only 2 percent of who you see on TV, and 95 percent are played by nondisabled actors.”
Zayid is working hard to be the change she wants to see with her new TV series in development, called If I Can-Can. If it airs, it will be the first time a woman with a disability plays a starring role on television in the United States.
Regardless of what life has in store for her, though, Zayid always manages to bring her sense of humor to the table. Why? Because she can-can.
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