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Disabled Comedian Ryan Niemiller Has Big Plans After Wowing on 'America's Got Talent'

Comedian Ryan Niemiller slayed during his audition for “America’s Got Talent,” earning a unanimous vote into the next round of competition. Now ready to keep audiences — and “AGT” judges — laughing, the self-proclaimed “Cripple Threat of Comedy” shared how he got into comedy, why disability representation is important and where you can see him next.

Niemiller got his start in comedy early, which turned out to be an asset when he was in school. He was born with a disability in both arms and credits his ability to keep his peers laughing as what protected him from bullying.

“Growing up with a disability, I learned really early on that the best way for me to survive and not get made fun of was to be able to make the jokes before anyone else could even think of them,” Niemiller told The Mighty. “I was so good at them that I never really got bullied that much.”

He took his penchant for performing all the way to college, where he got a degree in theater. Niemiller said while he loved theater, it didn’t quite fit what he wanted to do. He needed a format where he could lay everything bare.

“While I was doing [theater], I was like, ‘This is great. But I’m telling other people’s stories. I would rather tell my own story,’” Niemiller said. “I don’t think there’s any better way than stand up comedy. That’s you being vulnerable and making yourself open for people and telling what you want to tell.”

Niemiller also highlighted a lack of disability representation across the performing arts. Though one in four people in the U.S. live with a disability, only 2.4% of films in 2015 featured disabled people in speaking or named roles, according to a USC report on media representation.

“It’s important for me because disabilities, I still feel, I mean, things have gotten better, but we’re still so underrepresented in places where we should be represented,” Niemiller said, adding:

There’s still such a stigma to it. And even from doing live shows for the last 13 years. I mean, every time that I’m doing a show, people are like, ‘Oh, we’re not supposed to laugh at this. This is not comfortable.’ And I made them laugh at it and be comfortable with it. So that’s why it’s important. Until this stops becoming a big deal for someone to have a disability but still have normal human things going on in their life and people stop looking at that like it’s weird or crazy or taboo or whatever you say, I’m going to keep talking about it. It’s important to me.

While there aren’t readily available statistics on disability representation in the comedy world, research supports what Niemiller knows from lived experience — comedy can turn society’s stereotypes about disability on their head. However, disabled comedians often aren’t given the same shot, which is why Niemiller’s turn on the “AGT” stage is important. He earned that spotlight because he’s funny and put in 13 years honing his craft. Now the world is taking notice following his “AGT” audition.

“It’s very strange to now be able to pinpoint the exact moment in my life where my life changed. I don’t know if a lot of other people get to do that,” Niemiller said. He continued:

I’ve worked for so long … and having a disability my entire life, there’s been many times I’ve almost quit comedy because you just convince yourself no one’s ever going to take a chance on someone that looks like you. It didn’t matter how talented I was or good I was, you just start thinking, you know, if no one’s going to take that shot, I’m just yelling into the void right now. And that’s why I’ll be forever grateful to ‘America’s Got Talent,’ no matter what happens from here. The fact that they took that chance and let me go out on the biggest stage in the world and showcase what I can do — it means the world to me.

Niemiller joins a line of disabled comedians such as Greg Walloch, Geri Jewell and Chris Fonseca, who each have cerebral palsy; Brett Leake, who has muscular dystrophy; and Kathy Buckley, who is deaf. Like those before him, Niemiller highlighted how disability representation is important, though he hopes eventually he won’t have to address disability if he doesn’t want to.

“Eventually I want there to be just the time where I can just be a funny comedian who happens to have a disability,” Niemiller said. “I love talking about this, it’s important to me. But I also want to help hopefully … normalize things enough where I also don’t have to talk about the disability if I don’t want to.”

Long-term, Niemiller wants to tour around the world and record stand-up specials. He’s currently on tour across the U.S. with upcoming live performance dates in Indiana, Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Alabama, West Virginia and more. You can also catch him on “America’s Got Talent” again on Tuesday as he vies for a spot among the show’s top 36 competitors during the judge’s cut portion of the show.

“If I’m going to have to live with the negative side effects of having a disability, the getting stared at and being overlooked for opportunities and all that type of thing? Well, I’m going to put it in your face then and we’re going to change that,” Niemiller said. “I’m going to do my best to make it both better for myself and for anyone else that comes after me.”

Catch Niemiller on Tuesday’s latest episode of “America’s Got Talent” at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. To see Niemiller live in person, visit his tour schedule on his website.

Header image via Ryan Niemiller’s Twitter