Comic Maysoon Zayid is making disability mainstream

PHOTO: Comedian Maysoon Zayid talks discrimination in Hollywood on "Uncomfortable."PlayABC News
WATCH Maysoon Zayid: I want to mainstream disability

Once you’ve met Maysoon Zayid, it is impossible to forget her.

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As she made her way through the ABC News studio, she left in her wake a sea of smiling faces, and a host of new fans. That included the security guard who signed her in, the hair and makeup team who prepared her for our interview, and even random people who overheard her telling stories about her day on the escalator.

Zayid, who is a natural entertainer, can trace her comedic skills back to her family’s country of origin.

“When my friends went down to the Jersey Shore, my parents would send us back to Palestine, because they were afraid that if we forgot our roots, we’d grow up to be Britney Spears,” she cracks. “And so my aunties would sit around and cross-stitch and gossip, and I would sit with them instead of going out in the blazing heat.”

“I became the star of those gossip sessions because no one was as quick or cruel as I was … I was like 5, 6 years old gossiping, cracking jokes, and I think that’s where it all started for me.”

Now a veteran of screens big and small, and stand-up and speaking tours across the world, Zayid’s first foray into a career in performance was not necessarily what her parents had envisioned. The youngest of four girls, she was raised by parents who held their daughters to high standards when it came to achievement. One sister is now an ambassador; another, a loan officer; the third, a pharmacist. Zayid’s parents pushed her to become a lawyer.

“When I became a comedian the whole family was really worried. And they were like, ‘We need you to become a lawyer. We have figured out that law is what you can do with your disability,’” said Zayid, who has cerebral palsy. “Because I couldn’t be a heart surgeon. That would just be totally unwise.”

But she quickly discovered how difficult a career as an entertainer would be with a visible disability. Though 20 percent of Americans live with a disability, disabled speaking roles comprise only 2 percent on television according to a 2016 report titled "The Ruderman White Paper: Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television." Of that two percent, 95 percent are played by non-disabled actors.

“I would walk in to audition, some people would let me audition and just wouldn’t call me back,” Zayid recalled. “Other people, I would walk in the room and they would say, ‘No, thank you.’”

Refusing to be thwarted, Zayid continued on, carving out her own path rather than waiting for others to show her one. She co-created and still runs the Arab-American Comedy Festival, with fellow comic Dean Obeidallah. Her Ted Talk, a personal narrative called “I got 99 problems … palsy is just one,” has been viewed more than 8.6 million times to date. And she used her platform to become one of the most vocal and widely recognized disability advocates in the world.

“I had to make a decision and my decision was, do I go back to my really nice, safe life of being a stand-up comic, the only person with a mic, and not be made fun of. Or do I go out loud and proud, and let other disabled people know we are not grotesque. We do deserve a platform. And we can do this work just as well as our non-disabled counterparts,” Zayid said. “And I decided I had to do it.”

Check out the full conversation on this week’s episode of "Uncomfortable."

Download and subscribe to the "Uncomfortable" podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and ABC News podcasts.

Zayid was interviewed as part of a series called "Uncomfortable," hosted by Amna Nawaz, that offers in-depth honest conversations with influential figures about issues dividing America.