There’s a common misconception among people that having a disability makes it difficult – if not impossible – for someone to succeed in their chosen profession. In fact, the very idea of a disabled person having a chosen profession is often viewed as unrealistic. Today we visit a woman who shows us that living with a disability can actually inspire someone to rise to the top of their field.
Okay, how’s your Hollywood trivia? What do George Burns, Nancy McKeon, Johnny Depp and Ian McShane have in common?
Give up? They’ve all been involved in television productions with the first disabled person to appear in a recurring role on a prime time series.
And that person is Geri Jewell
In the hit HBO series “Deadwood”, Geri Jewell played the part of a disabled cleaning woman at a saloon and brothel. The role brought Jewell considerable acclaim and was quite a stretch from her early days in the family sitcom “The Facts of Life”.
But Geri Jewel isn’t just a fine actress respected by her co-stars. She’s also a well-known stand-up comic and much sought-after motivational speaker who’s consulted for companies such as Hewlett-Packard and AT&T.
Not bad for a kid who was born 3 months premature with cerebral palsy.
“There were moments where it was difficult…you know, when kids used to mimic me and make fun of my movements and call me names,” recalls Jewell. “Yeah, that was painful. But I was a very happy child…I really was. And I had a good sense of humor. And I had a wild imagination.”
That positive attitude, a great support network in her family and her contagious sense of humor helped Geri Jewell get past the stigma placed on her by many as a result of her disability.
“Truthfully, I think even when I was a kid, I understood intuitively that in order to make people feel comfortable around me…I felt that I needed to get them to laugh,” Jewell explains.
And Geri had a secret supporter who was an expert in that field.
“I also was (a) pen pal with Carol Burnett from the time I was about 12 or 13,” Jewell explains. “ And she always wrote me back…and told me that I could do anything I wanted with my life. And that it was important to make the effort and to try, because you don’t know what you can do unless you try.”
Try Geri did...determined to accomplish what Carol Burnett was able to achieve.
“And you have,” I comment.
“I have,” agrees Jewell. “It’s amazing. I mean. I look back at what I’ve done with my life and it amazes me that I was able to overcome and accomplish the things that I have.”
When asked how a woman with cerebral palsy arrived where she is, Geri tells people this.
“To always believe in themselves,” Jewell declares. “To always move forward, no matter how dark it is…there is light at the end of the tunnel. And also…very, very important…and I don’t say this lightly…. it’s important to have a sense of humor and to not take yourself so seriously - because that’s what trips us up. I take life seriously, but I don’t take me seriously. There’s a difference.”
Of course, Hollywood actresses aren’t the only cerebral palsy success stories, though Geri Jewell is certainly an inspiration for many – including Sam Kooiker, mayor of Rapid City. Kooiker also has cerebral palsy. He met Geri on her recent South Dakota visit promoting her memoir “I’m Walking as Straight as I Can”.
“What I admire so much about Geri in the short time I spent with her is she lives life to the fullest,” Kookier observes. “She takes it seriously and yet she has a great sense of humor and that’s how I want to live my life, too. You know, I have found that being able to laugh at myself, and of course others, is the key to surviving.”
Humor is the theme of success for both Kooiker and Geri Jewell.
Geri Jewell says the real disabilities in the world are hatred, prejudice, greed, abuse, hypocrisy, false pride and despondency.
As for the cerebral palsy she’s carried around with her all her life, Geri says that just happens to be her human condition.