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Jewell sheds light on life with a disability

Teresa Nowakowski | Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Actress and stand-up comedienne Geri Jewell began her lecture at Saint Mary’s Tuesday by describing her life with an admirable vitality, only casually mentioning the fact that she has lived with cerebral palsy since birth.

“I was born this way, so it’s no big deal,” she said. “You know what is a big deal to me? My hair.”

Despite her disability, a chronic condition affecting body movements and muscle coordination caused by partial brain damage, Jewell has maintained control of her life in every capacity she can.

“Her life and her story are an amazing inspiration to everybody,” said Frances Bruder, Students with Disabilities representative on Student Diversity Board.

Best known as Cousin Geri in “The Facts of Life,” Jewell was the first disabled person to be cast in a Primetime series. She was cast in nine episodes of the show, meaning she had just nine weeks of work in four years.

“Of course I was a token, I knew it,” she said. However, Jewell did not let the typecasting discourage her. She instead reasoned that if she made herself a public figure, she would eventually break into mainstream entertainment.

In addition to “The Facts of Life,” Jewell has held roles in “I Love Liberty,” “Two of a Kind,” “Nice Dreams” and “Deadwood,” which will premiere in March on HBO.

Jewell demonstrated Tuesday that she will laugh at her own jokes and stories, yet is first to admit that she’s “had an interesting life.”

Despite her now positive outlook, Jewell’s life has not been all smiles and laughter. As a child, she was the subject of frequent taunting and name-calling.

“You just deal with it,” she said. “I highly overcompensated.”

In school growing up, Jewell said she “was the last generation of children with special needs who are not mainstreamed” and a self-described “survivor of Special Ed.” Although she received the best occupational and physical therapy that was available, she was not challenged academically.

Jewell graduated from high school and was left to the discretion of California state agencies. They tried to make her learn a variety of skills in a workshop, in a job at a switchboard and in a filing position, yet she could not complete any of them – simply because she was never interested in what she was doing.

“They never asked me what my interests were,” explained Jewell about why she failed to succeed in the tasks given to her.

Within her lecture, Jewell interspersed stories about the difficulty encountered when merging her disability with her entertainment career, such as knocking off Big Bird’s head in front of a live Sesame Street audience.

“We deal with a lot of ignorance on a daily basis,” she said. “To say that I have to change [a non-disabled person’s attitude] toward me; that’s very unrealistic. Sometimes we get so used to rejection and not having friendships that we expect it to be this way.”

Jewell insists that she “will go 200 yards to make someone feel comfortable” around her, “but it’s always a two-way street.”

“The only thing I can be responsible for is my attitude and what I believe about myself,” she said.

Jewell was the first in a series of guest speakers for Saint Mary’s Disabilities Awareness Week. In addition to other presentations and lectures, signs will also be posted around campus illustrating the effects of disabilities and highlighting public figures that live with a disability on a daily basis.