Matt O’Nesti of Boardman, Ohio, has been performing stand-up comedy since he was in high school. O’Nesti was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type 2 and has been in a wheelchair since age 2. He uses comedy as a platform for both dealing with and spreading awareness about his disability.
“It gave me this freedom,” O’Nesti told Ohio news station WKBN, “this freedom of expression to just sorta deal with the obvious problems that I go through being disabled and in a wheelchair. Gave me a platform to talk about it.”
On the DODD Ohio Podcast earlier this year, O’Nesti spoke with host Jeff Davis, director of the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities, and long-time friend and co-advocate William Clark. Though he went to school for film editing, O’Nesti has been performing comedy for years.
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“I’ve been a comedian since I was a freshman in high school,” O’Nesti told Davis. “I didn’t realize, at that time, that I was also an advocate. I never labeled myself as that; I never paid much attention to it. I just assumed that I was just doing my own thing and that was enough.” It wasn’t until later that he “realized that was also kind of a form of advocacy.”
This realization changed O’Nesti’s perspective on what it means to be an advocate and to give back to the disabled community. He saw that just being active in the community and letting his voice be heard is enough. “Showing your average Joe we can do things the same as you,” he told Davis.
As O’Nesti told WKBN, it is impossible to address all issues faced by the disabled community while performing. “You can’t confront every single issue on stage,” he admitted. “On stage, my end goal is to get a laugh. It’s not to do a TED Talk.”
He does, however, lend his voice to other advocacy platforms. Aside from performing stand-up comedy, O’Nesti is active in local politics. He and Clark have been discussing policy with the superintendent of Disability Rights Ohio. O’Nesti’s goal is to ensure that “every disabled person in our county or in our general area is aware of the institutions and services that can help them lead a life that is equal to everyone else’s.”