Comedy, a weapon in the battle for inclusion?

Maysoon Zayid a comedian who happens to have cerebral palsy, happens to be Palestinian and happens to be a woman

Maysoon Zayid a comedian who happens to have cerebral palsy, happens to be Palestinian and happens to be a woman

“I’m Palestinian, Muslim, I’m female, I’m disabled and I live in New Jersey.”

These words were spoken by Maysoon Zayid, a comedian who in December 2013 talked about her experiences to an audience in San Francisco as part of the TED Inspirational Talks series. Cerebral palsy, she declares, is the least of her 99 problems!

Maysoon has cerebral palsy, she is articulate, full of enthusiasm and I find her very amusing. However, I was with a colleague this morning who recently saw a recording of her doing a stand up performance on television in the USA, which he described as making him feel “uncomfortable”. The difficulties that he had with her performance related to the jokes that she made about her life as a disabled woman. Surely, he said to me, this is not a suitable subject for comedy?

This raises interesting issues and I can see why, as an able bodied man, he might feel some disquiet at being confronted by a disabled woman who can be quite forthright in expressing her own life experiences, sometimes in quite graphic terms. “If you or I made jokes of this nature”, he suggested, “we would be seen as behaving in a totally unacceptable manner.” I suspect that this might be true, and quite rightly so. But I do feel that he is missing the point. Maysoon Zayid is making jokes at her own expense in order to draw the attention of others to some of the discrimination that she has experienced as a disabled woman, she is certainly not laughing at, or about the experiences of others with disabilities. “As a balding (late) middle aged man, if I make a joke about losing most of my hair, would you, as someone who is also challenged in this area find this offensive?” I asked.

It would appear that he would be quite comfortable with me making this joke at my own expense, even if it was slightly aimed at him as well. Apparently it is ok for me to laugh at myself, but less so when Maysoon Zayid does this, purely because of her cerebral palsy.

Humour has always had an important part to play in education. It can be particularly powerful in bringing our attention to issues of injustice or disadvantage. It does seem to me that what Maysoon Zayid does in her performances is not in any way disrespectful of any individual with a disability or groups who may represent their interests. In fact, when I have watched her act in the company of friends who have a disability they see her humour as a particularly potent weapon in the fight against discrimination and marginalisation. Indeed it was Kerry, a long term friend of mine who herself has cerebral palsy who first drew my attention to Maysoon Zayid and her act.

Towards the end of her Ted Talk (which you can see below) Maysoon Zayid states that “disability is as visible as race,” and suggests that whilst it may be polite not to draw attention to the disabilities of others, it can be helpful to try to understand these through an open discussion. In her case this means using humour as a weapon to challenge the world in which she lives. Perhaps occasionally making others feel uncomfortable is part of the process. Maybe this is an effective means of making them consider their own attitudes and experiences. If Maysoon Zayid is comfortable with this, then why would I wish to challenge her? You can make up your own mind by watching her performance at the Ted Talk on the link below. If you like what you see, then I hope that you have a good laugh – let me know. If you are offended, I’d like to know why so again, let me know.