maysoon zayid nyuad
Maysoon Zayid with sign language interpreter at NYUAD Source: Supplied

Maysoon Zayid is an American Palestinian actress, comedian, disability rights advocate, and writer.

The outspoken comic was born in New Jersey in 1974 with cerebral palsy, is known as one of America's first female Muslim comedians and the first person ever to perform stand-up comedy in Palestine and Jordan.

She is a graduate of Arizona State University and the co-­founder/co-executive producer of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival and Muslim Funny Fest.

Every year, Zayid spends three months in Palestine, where she runs an arts program for disabled and orphaned children in refugee camps. 

Her honourable commitment helps the children use art to deal with trauma and bridge the gap between disabled and non-disabled children. Eighty percent of the funding for the camps comes from her comedy work.

In 2014, her inspiring TED Talk was identified as the most popular video on the platform. A year later, Zayid was named amongst the BBC's 100 most inspirational women across the world.

Earlier this month, StepFeed met Maysoon Zayid at her stand-up comedy event in Abu Dhabi, which was hosted by the NYUAD Arts Centre.

Speaking to StepFeed, she tells us more about her artistic material, life with cerebral palsy, how to deal with bullies, controversial content, what more the Arab world can do for people with disabilities and much more...

1. How do you come up with the content for your shows? Is it something you do spontaneously on the day, or do you sit down and draw up a thought-map with the material you'd like to cover?

The way I come up with my material is a combination of both. I really like to draw from current events and from the local culture where I am doing the show. 

I also have jokes I’ve done before that I mix in with the new material. There’s no map, it’s more like a bunch of desired pit stops.

2. As an individual who has dealt with cerebral palsy her entire life, what advice can you give to young people who might be dealing with abuse or bullying, especially online?

My advice is never to give a bully power. Don’t let people who hate you define you. If bullying crosses over into abuse, report it to teachers or to the authorities. 

There is never a good reason to be abused and while I know that abuse is hard to escape, it’s important to remember that no one deserves to be physically or verbally assaulted. 

I always say that it is better to have no friends than twenty friends that bully and abuse you.

3. We don't see many people, especially in the Arab world, who push the boundaries the way you do, by talking about politics, sex, religion, controversial topics, mainstreaming disabilities... What would you say to those people, especially the ones who have a platform and could potentially make a greater positive impact?

I always tell comedians to talk about what they know. I am edgy and push the limits, but I have the privilege to do so. Other entertainers must decide for themselves what they are willing to risk. 

A decade ago, I would be willing to go to jail for my comedy. Now, I do whatever I can to avoid jail, so I can’t ask others to take a risk I am not willing to take myself. 

I still think my comedy is edgy and that I am always pushing the boundaries. I think you can have just as much a powerful impact without sacrificing your safety.

4. Note that I use the world disability with a heavy heart, I think you are anything but "dis-abled". What more can be done in this part of the world to empower people with disabilities, especially young women? 

First of all, don’t use the word disabled with a heavy heart. 

There is no shame in disability. We shouldn’t look at it as a negative but rather as a fact. My disability doesn’t define me but ignoring it does not help me. 

The best way to empower people with disabilities is to guarantee that they have access to education and to understand that 'disabled' does not mean infantile. 

Young women with disabilities must be treated equally and not as some poor unfortunate soul who will never get married and will always be dependent. 

While it is true that some disabled people will always need assistance, needing help does not mean that you are not independent. 

Marriage should also not be the ultimate goal. If that is your destiny, great, but if not, it is not the end of the world. 

Society needs to focus less on cures and more on creating an accessible world where people can reach their potential regardless of ability.

5. How can we ensure disabled people feel more included with daily activities in terms of accessibility, access to playgrounds, shops and supermarkets, small things like these that could make a huge difference in the daily life of people with disabilities? And how can we empower teachers, educators and society to make sure those with physical disadvantages get the same chances in life?

It is important to teach educators and society that people with disabilities are not a burden and that they are worth investing in. 

When designing any space for events, always assume that someone with a disability will be using that space or attending. Make sure that it is not only accessible to wheelchairs but that the bathrooms are also accessible to people with disabilities. 

Always have a sign language interpreter or live captioning available. Live captioning is when there is a screen behind the performer and someone types what is being said live so that those with hearing loss or deafness can enjoy too. 

I subtitle my web series in English and Arabic for that very reason. 

Finally, it is important to understand that disability is diverse. Don’t do the minimum, try to accommodate as many people as possible. The more inclusive a society is, the more successful it will be.

6. In Europe, for example, there are laws that guarantee disabled people an advantage when it comes to job hunting, do you think the Arab world should have similar rules in place?

Yes, I think the Arab world needs to have laws that demand people with disabilities are given a fair chance and that they are accommodated at work, especially if they become disabled. 

I don’t know about Europe, but America is terrible at employing the disabled and forcing people to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act

We have been lucky for forty years and there have been laws that require schools to accommodate disabled students. Unfortunately, the current US administration is trying to take away that right. 

It is very sad to see America going backwards when it comes to disability rights.

7. During the 2016 US elections, Western comedians were at the forefront of political activism, using humour to tackle racism, inequality and Islamophobia. You are one of the few Arab comedians who uses her voice to highlight social issues relevant in today's world. What more do you think the Arab world can do to enable comedians to find a voice and platform to become outspoken advocates for positive change?

The first thing the Arab world needs to do is guarantee a comedian’s right to joke. 

If a comedian is living in fear of being jailed, it is hard for them to battle inequality, hate, or violence. 

If comedians are given freedom of expression, my next piece of advice is always be funny first. 

If you want to have a message, that is great, but as a comedian, you need to find a way to deliver it in a funny way. Otherwise you are a preacher, not a comedian.

8. Throughout the Middle East, there is a known lack of education about people with mental or physical disabilities. Although there are now more and more initiatives and organisations, private and government-funded, getting involved to educate the masses, do you think there is still a stigma attached to being disabled? How do you deal with that, and how do you think we can make life easier for the next generation of children who might be born with disabilities.

There is definitely a stigma still attached to disability. 

Anytime I land in a Middle Eastern country, I hear people calling me “poor thing”. 

It is depressing and dehumanizing. As bad as it is for people with physical disabilities, it is far worse for people with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues. 

There is a fear of people who battle mental health problems. There is a misperception that they are violent when the reality is that they are more likely to face violence than commit it. 

WE can make life easier for the next generation of disabled children by ensuring their right to an education and by having a zero tolerance for people that abuse the disabled. 

It is also very important to remind people that they can become disabled at any time. We are the one group that you can join regardless of race, religion, gender, or economic standing. 

Disability does not discriminate. Embrace it, do not fear it.

maysoon zayid  at nyuad
Maysoon Zayid at NYUAD Source: Supplied

9. Lastly, thank you for visiting the UAE and the amazing event. Also, a huge shout out to NYUAD Arts Centre for giving you the stage. As we witnessed, you have a great number of following throughout the Arab world, the entire hall was filled with people who were just waiting to get inside to see you live. Are there any more events planned for the Middle East, especially the GCC region?

I hope to be back at NYUAD very soon. There is much more teaching to be done. I’ve performed in two of the seven Emirates, so I’d love to do shows in the other five. 

Until then, people can visit my website, there is a ton of content to watch and my entire web series, 'Advice You Don’t Want to Hear' is subtitled in Arabic for my GCC fans’ enjoyment.

TED Talk: "I got 99 problems... palsy is just one"

For more information on upcoming events, you can follow Maysoon Zayid on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, or visit her website.

This profile is part of StepFeed's Featured Arabs series, featuring Arabs you should know about. Read previous profiles here.