I got 99 problems…palsy is just one

A friend read that post I wrote last Monday (you know, the one about the new TV sitcom about growing up with a father who is blind) and told me she was disappointed that NBC didn’t hire a blind actor for the starring role. My friend doesn’t have a disability herself, but she had recently seen a Ted Talk by female stand-up comic Maysoon Zayid called “I Got 99 Problems…Palsy is Just One”, and the video made her much more aware of the lack of Hollywood roles for actors with disabilities.

Maysoon Zayid has cerebral palsy. She studied theater at Arizona State University (ASU) but gave up her dream to become an actress after repeatedly being passed over for roles.

Even when ASU produced And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, a play about a girl who has physical disabilities growing up in a small (and small-minded) town, Zayid didn’t get the lead. “This is a part I was literally born to play,” she says, lamenting that they cast an able-bodied theater student instead. “They didn’t think I could do the stunts, but excuse me, if I can’t do the stunts, neither can the character!”

Zayid says in her Ted Talk that she realized very, very quickly that Hollywood doesn’t have a place for “fluffy ethnic disabled people” like her. The only female stars she could think of who made it to the top without conventional cover girl looks were comediennes. Whoopi Goldberg. Rosie O’Donnell. Roseanne Barr. So she turned to comedy.

Her Ted Talk opens with a lot of shtick. Example: she tells the audience she knows they’ve all dreamed of having a disability. The crowd gasps. Then it goes dead quiet. Zayid continues, asking them to pretend they’re going around and around a shopping mall parking lot on Christmas Eve and passing by all those empty handicapped parking spots, and…the crowd laughs in agreement.

Zayid gets serious at the end, though, pointing out the double standards and cruelty that still exist regarding people with disabilities. She says she was never made fun of when she was growing up, but now the internet allows people to be cruel and ugly with comments about her. She also asserts that if Hollywood won’t hire actors with disabilities for everyday roles, than they ought to stop casting able-bodied actors into roles as people with disabilities. “If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user,” she shrugs.

Tune in to the Ted Talk video yourself, and see if you don’t end up agreeing with Zayid when she insists, “We need to create more positive images of people with disabilities in the media.”

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