Outside of RJ Mitte, who played Walt Jr. on Breaking Bad, there are very few actors with disabilities who get the chance to tell their own stories on television. Actress and comedian Maysoon Zayid, who like Mitte was born with cerebral palsy, discusses her disability in this Big Think interview while also stressing the importance of positive media portrayals of people with disabilities. “When you do see disability on television,” she says, “we’re reduced to two storylines. Either ‘heal me’ or ‘you can’t love me because I’m disabled.'” Zayid hopes someday soon television will make a stronger commitment to actors with disabilities.
Maysoon Zayid: I have cerebral palsy, which is a neurological disorder; also it's a traumatic brain injury that happens either in utero, during the birthing process, or within the first couple of months of life. So a 26-year-old can't get cerebral palsy. It's not genetic. You can't catch it. Even though I have seen people become a bit more spilly around me it's not contagious; I promise. My cerebral palsy happened during birth. The doctor who delivered me was drunk and I came out fist first ready to fight the power and he panicked and cut my mom six different times in six different directions. And as a result I lost oxygen. That loss of oxygen damaged the part of my brain that handles coordination. And as a result I shake all the time.
Now, it's really important to remember cerebral palsy is a spectrum, so different people with CP have different symptoms; they have different abilities. Some people use wheelchairs; some people are mobile; some are verbal; some are nonverbal. That doesn't mean that we're intellectually superior in any way to our counterparts who have less or more ability, but cerebral palsy can also happen alongside other disabilities. So there are people with CP and mental illness; there are people with CP and respiratory problems and there are people like me who just have CP. And I work really hard to keep my health up. And I think that having a disability is often thought of as like this poor person and she's always struggling. And I don't really think of my CP that way. I think of it as part of me. It doesn't define me. There are days where I hate it and there are days where I don't even think about it.
I'm a person who watches TV all the time, all the time; I love TV. And I really think that the media heavily influences how we as a society behave towards each other. And one of the things that I find to be lacking on television are positive images of diversity. Hollywood talks a lot about diversity and I think that the definition is wrong. It's not about having, you know, one person of this color and one person of this gender and one person of this; it's about actually including those people and allowing them to tell their stories and creating images that mirror those in the real world. And one of the places that I feel this is the most necessary is with people with disabilities. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world. We cross all races, classes, religion, gender; we're the minority group that you can join when you don't want to at any time in your life.
And we are the most underrepresented on media and television. And when you do see disability on television we're reduced to two storylines. Either heal me or you can't love me because I'm disabled. We're never full-fledged characters that fall in love, maybe have kids, maybe get in a catfight. We're reduced to these snowflake, angel, eternal children and the fact that people with disabilities grow up and that we're functioning members of society and that we're not just here to bleed the system is not something that I see on TV.
In addition to that, roles of people with disability are often played by actors who do not have those disabilities and those actors often take home awards. Meanwhile, the disabled community is watching this and to us it looks like a caricature because we don't believe that visible disability is something that you can act; we feel like it's something more like race where yes there's a visible component, but there's also an internalization that an actor that's just mimicking twitches is not capturing. So we're shut out from playing the wacky best friend when there's no reason that we should be, but we're also shut out from playing the roles of actual people with disabilities. I believe that the reason I encountered so much hate after my first big TV appearance on Countdown with Keith Olbermann was because people are not used to seeing disability on TV so they thought it was okay to guess what I had. I was there to talk about politics. We did not address my disability. And when I went home and Googled myself like any egomaniacal actress with a dream does, I saw people saying it's Botox gone wrong. It's bad surgery. She's drunk. She's drugged. She's Muslim; maybe her husband beat her. And my favorite one: poor Gumby mouth terrorist; we should probably pray for her.
So, I felt like if people were more exposed to positive images of disability, to characters like Radar from M*A*S*H who were just there and were great and were part of the system. Or if one of the girlfriends on Big Bang Theory or a gladiator on Scandal was a wheelchair user or had cerebral palsy or was actually blind, that people would then consider us as equals. But right now we're plot devices and we're these horrible news packages that you see on like Good Morning America, these inspirational stories that really dehumanize us because it's like aren't you surprised this person with a disability was able to tie their shoes? And that's a big accomplishment for a lot of people and I'm not downplaying that. But at the same time why don't you ever see the lawyers, the doctors, the wives, the mothers? You never see those images when you're being exposed to disability on television.