Cerebral Palsy Cannot Cripple This Young Comic's Wit or Will

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

On TV, where even the newsmen and women are supposed to be physically flawless, Geri Jewell is a stunning anomaly. She walks with a lurch and a shuffle, has difficulty hearing and sometimes slurs her speech. Like 700,000 other Americans, Jewell suffers from cerebral palsy, a condition ca used by brain injury and resulting in spastic movement and other disorders. Yet for Geri, who may have suffered prenatal brain damage when her mother jumped off a porch to avoid an out-of-control car, CP has not been an insurmountable obstacle. After two years of college, she launched a career as a stand-up comic at L.A.'s Comedy Store in 1978, using her own handicap as a source of material. Spotted by producer Norman Lear, she made her debut last season in the Lear sitcom The Facts of Life. Off-camera, Jewell, whose mother is a mail carrier and whose father is a hotel security chief, drives her own car and lives by herself in a one-bedroom home in Toluca Lake, Calif. Recently the 25-year-old actress spoke with PEOPLE correspondent Suzanne Adelson.

I've spent many frustrating years dealing with people who don't know how to deal with me. I don't have epilepsy or muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis. I was born prematurely with cerebral palsy. Although some people become CP victims because of an accident during delivery, you don't necessarily get it at birth. It just means your head was injured in some manner and the motor part of the brain damaged.

When my mom was 16, she had a summer job in Maine taking care of some kids, and one of them had cerebral palsy. She said that from the day I was born in Buffalo, she knew I had CP too, even though no one else did. When I was 6 months old she took me from doctor to doctor in New York, and told them she thought I was spastic. They told her, "What do you want? You expect this baby to get up and walk and talk at 6 months?" They all seemed to think she was crazy or neurotic. Then my parents heard that the UCLA Medical Center was supposed to be the finest facility for the early diagnosis and treatment of CP infants, so we went there.

When the doctors at UCLA finally diagnosed me as a CP baby, there was a 50 percent chance I'd be mentally retarded, and I was never expected to walk. For me walking was the most difficult thing to do. Some kids never learn. My parents were terrific and wouldn't accept that, and so I never even wore leg braces. Instead, my mother put me into a special standing table at home two hours a day in addition to my daily therapy at school. Gradually my legs strengthened, and I walked before my fourth birthday.

When I was little, my palsy was severe. My parents taped a spoon to my hand, sandbagged my arm to eliminate the shaking and let me try to feed myself. Naturally, I'd throw every other spoonful over my shoulder, so my parents, my two brothers and my sister would sit at one end of the table and put me down at the other end where the dog would stand behind me, waiting for his dinner. They'd do this for about 15 or 20 minutes every meal before they'd feed me, so I had to work for that food.

It's not easy raising a handicapped kid, and some parents might not even have kept me because they couldn't have handled it emotionally. I am exceptional in terms of the progress I've made, but I couldn't have done it without my parents. They were strict and demanded things of me, yet they loved me, and that was obvious. For me, everything was an achievement—learning how to hold a glass of water without spilling it, how to tie my shoes, brush my teeth, put on my clothes. When my mother would make me set the table, I'd slam the glasses down so hard they'd break. But she kept making me do it until I learned.

I got used to having neighborhood kids make fun of me, walk and talk like me, and ape my movements. God, it was tough. They used to think I was mentally retarded, and I had to live with that. Once when I was about 9 I went to my speech therapist and burst into tears. I told her I wanted a pair of canes, those metal crutches with arm braces, and she asked why. I said if I had those canes, then people would know my problems were physical and that I wasn't mentally retarded. I wanted to look like I had cerebral palsy so people would understand.

I knew that I was different, but oddly enough, I didn't see my handicap the way other people did. Even now, the only time I see it is when I'm walking toward a glass door or see my reflection in a mirror, because in my own mind I don't look like that. Also, I developed a sense of humor about myself. I was a clown. My parents never told my brothers and sister not to laugh at me, so they'd laugh and say, "Oh, look, Geri just spilled her third glass of milk." I learned to play to the audience real young, and many times I'd deliberately spill my milk to get their reaction.

In high school I went through my first experience with self-pity. I thought I'd be as popular as I had been in my special ed classes for the handicapped. I expected to go out with the quarterback. I expected to go to the prom and the parties and the football games, but it didn't happen. Also, it didn't help that my younger sister was extremely popular and strikingly beautiful. A lot of the guys in my class would sit next to me only to talk about Gloria. I became emotionally hungry for a friend, and if I did make one, I'd hold on too tightly. I used to be so afraid of offending, and I'd apologize for everything.

At Cypress College in California I found a teacher, Kaleta Brown, who had a great impact on my life. I told her I wanted to be a theater arts major and maybe even a stand-up comic like Carol Burnett, my idol. I had written to Carol and received many encouraging letters in return. Kaleta thought my goal was totally unrealistic, but she encouraged me and gave me a tremendous amount of love and inspiration. She was also hard on me; the last thing I needed was pity or an easy way out. I got to the point where I made straight A's because of that woman, but I was doing it for her and not for me. Then came another turning point. She rejected me 100 percent. I was draining her, leaning on her. She told me that I'd have to grow up and stand on my own two feet, that she'd done all that she could do for me.

So I switched to Fullerton College and became a psychology major. I was getting straight A's in that subject too, but I couldn't master the anatomy and physiology classes. I couldn't hold my head still enough to look into the microscope, and I couldn't do fine work like dissecting a frog. Again I became frustrated. I was riding home on the bus one day, crying out my despair to the driver, whose name was John Holton. He asked me what I really wanted to do with my life, and I told him what I really wanted was a fantasy—to be a stand-up comic. He told me about this blind comedian who performed at the Comedy Store and said that if he could do it, I could do it. John took me down to the Comedy Store on his own time every Monday night and stood behind the stage with a recorder to tape my act. Then we'd discuss which routines to throw out and which ones to keep. For a whole year he stayed by my side.

It wasn't easy, especially after I left college. For a while I was living with two male comedians in a two-bedroom apartment. I was given the walk-in closet for my room, so I put down a mattress, had my clothes hanging above me and pinned up a poster of a window that showed Hawaii in the background. I was getting $256 a month from Social Security because of my handicap, and I tried to find work outside the Comedy Store—which didn't pay me—so I could give up the government money. You can't believe how hard it is to find a job when you have cerebral palsy. I couldn't type or be a waitress, and a lot of companies wouldn't hire me because they didn't know how the public would respond to someone like me in an office.

When I began working on The Facts of Life last year, I think the cast members were all trying to be extra-special nice because they felt a little bit uncomfortable. But after about the fifth day everything was running smoothly, and we all felt at ease. I did have a problem controlling my nerves sometimes when the cameras were rolling. In one scene I had a dance number with actress Lisa Whelchel, and we had to do that segment over at least eight times. I kept goofing up because nervousness affects my body movements.

I'm sure television can be a forum for me, as the stage has been. This show is allowing me to be seen as just an actress portraying a character. I can't stop every person who walks down a supermarket aisle and say, "I'm not retarded; I have cerebral palsy," but just showing that I can do the job means I can finally communicate with them. It's getting my message across to people more powerfully than anything I could ever say.

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