Best. Keynote. Ever: Maysoon Zayid is Brilliant, Stylish and Joyful

Where has Maysoon Zayid been all my life? Once she started talking, I never wanted her to stop, and judging from the lit-up zoom chat, everyone at today’s keynote felt the same. The Palestinian American comedian, actor, and disability justice activist had us all “laugh-crying and crying-crying,” in the words of one attendee, all while dropping brilliant insights without missing a beat and wearing a fabulous feathery black jacket. In the words of another chat post: “Best. Keynote. Ever. Brilliant, stylish, and joyful.”

It’s so uniquely powerful to see someone being so fully herself, so authentic and free, and in creative possession of every aspect of her story. From her Jersey upbringing, to summers spent in Palestine (her best friend went to the Jersey Shore, and she went to a war zone), to life with cerebral palsy, Maysoon’s voice is the best reminder that art is liberation, in every sense of the word.

One of the most poignant messages in her talk—tucked in between hilarious observations about Arab names and the advantages of being disabled at Disneyland—was about the life-giving role of grants especially when the pandemic suddenly cut her income to zero. As someone who relies on a typist to write her work, Maysoon’s fear of not being able to pay a typist and “get my ideas out of my head,” was a window into the access and functional needs of artists with disabilities, for whom navigating grant applications can be even more overwhelming and can have such dire consequences for their work and life. “What saved me is a grant. Grants can save lives. It’s not about spoiling people. It’s okay to say I need this grant not just to create but to support myself so I can live.”

Maysoon can be just as searing about police violence (after a disarming and sidesplittingly funny lead-in). She started with a long joke about her best friend making her the designated driver, since Muslims don’t drink, but how her cerebral palsy always led police officers to think she was drunk. When cops pulled her over, since she couldn’t walk a straight line to prove she was sober, she learned to say the alphabet backward instead. Well, she goes on to say, she was lucky, since 50 percent of those who are killed by law enforcement in the U.S. are disabled people. This led to a reflection on the intersections of disability and racial justice, most tragically embodied in the murder of Elijah McClain.

Access and inclusivity with disability rights is only now breaking through into more spaces, and still has so much farther to go. As Maysoon points out, people with disabilities are the largest minority in the world—at least 20 percent of the population has a visible or invisible disability. Her words of advice on ally-ship are simple and wise: “Acknowledge pain when it’s voiced, do what you can do to alleviate it, and figure out how you can create that equal playing field.” And of course, as her father instilled in her—“If I can-can, then you can-can!”