Maysoon Zayid was born with cerebral palsy
CP is an incurable neurological disorder that affects body movement
Zayid's parents treated her just like everyone else and used nontraditional methods like piano lessons to increase her dexterity
Editor’s Note: Maysoon Zayid is an actress, professional standup comedian and disability advocate. She is the co-founder and co-executive producer of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival and was a contributor to “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” and “The Daily Beast.” The opinions in this piece are solely those of the author.
March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. Don’t feel bad if you did not know that. I didn’t either until someone recently slapped a picture of a green ribbon and a message wishing me a “Happy CP Awareness Month” on my Facebook page. I always thought March was Women’s History Month.
Now that I am aware it is both, I’ve decided to use this occasion to make you aware of what it means to me to be a woman with this disability.
When I ask people what they think of when they hear the term “cerebral palsy,” I usually get one of two responses. They either think of a smiling, crumpled child in a wheelchair on a poster or commercials on late night TV with lawyers enticing parents of CP kids to sue the pants off their obstetrician. What they don’t think of are adults who work, have relationships, can have children and are fully functioning members of society.
CP is not genetic. It happens from trauma in utero, at birth or within the first few months of life. Common causes are lack of oxygen, infections, strokes, premature birth and infant brain trauma. In my case, I was born on Labor Day and the doctor who delivered me was drunk as a skunk. I came out fist-first ready to fight the power. The doctor panicked and cut my mom six different times in six different directions.
He smothered me in the process and gave me the lifelong gift of CP. Happy birthday to me!
Today, I am a touring standup comic who cannot stand up. Within three minutes I begin to wilt, lose my balance and topple over. I can tap dance and run in heels, but I need to use a wheelchair to navigate airports.
I shake all the time. It’s exhausting and causes chronic pain in my joints and muscles. It is also the only life I have ever known. I use yoga, dance, nutrition and breathing to help manage my symptoms.
I don’t resent the fact that I have CP, but I do resent the doctor. He could have killed my mother and me.
I am not ashamed of my disability. CP does not define me, but it is a part of me and shaped who I am today.
Not everyone with CP is like me. Our disability is a spectrum and its manifestation varies. Some use wheelchairs while others walk independently. Some are verbal and others use technology to express themselves.
There are also those with CP who have multiple disabilities. It is not a one-size-fits-all disease. In fact, it is not a disease at all. It is also not an intellectual disability. People with CP range from highly intelligent to whatever the politically correct opposite of that is.
People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world and we are the most underrepresented in media and entertainment. Ableism is real and Hollywood is a repeat offender. Folks like me are currently nowhere to be found on daytime or prime time TV.
The most well-known celebrity with CP is RJ Mitte from “Breaking Bad.” He follows in the legendary wobbly footsteps of Geri Jewell, who debuted on “The Facts of Life” in 1980. I remember watching Geri and thinking, “Woah! She has CP like me.”
Children with CP are considered cute, while adults are ignored. It is harder to find jobs, housing and after age 21, it is hard to find a doctor who understands CP. All the focus is on children. Once we are adults, the services disappear.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that people with CP, especially those who are nonverbal, cannot be educated. Technology and legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act have helped mainstream children with CP into the U.S. school system. Unfortunately, this is not the case worldwide. Nor was it always the case in America.
When I started public school, my parents had to sue the school to have me attend. I do not believe I would be who I am today, an actress on the Z-list destined to win an Oscar, unless my parents had not fought for my right to an education.
There is still a long way to go, including here in America. If you ask me what I most want people to know about CP, my answer is simple: You don’t need to cure us, but you do need to respect us as equals.
This is where I drop the mic, because I’m palsy and we tend to drop things, and that’s OK.