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Published: Monday, 10/17/2005

Actress makes jokes a path to self-respect

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Actress and comedienne Geri Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, pokes fun at her challenges. Actress and comedienne Geri Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, pokes fun at her challenges.
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Television actress and comedienne Geri Jewell had a question for about 175 in the Perrysburg High School auditorium yesterday afternoon.

"You know what the hardest thing is about having cerebral palsy and being a woman?" she asked. "It's plucking my eyebrows. That's how I originally got pierced ears."

Ms. Jewell, who plays Jewell in HBO's Deadwood, was in Wood County yesterday as part of a continuing celebration of the 50th anniversary of the county's programs for mentally retarded and developmentally disabled people. She used comedy to urge people to have self-respect, to respect others, to believe in themselves, and not give up.

"If they remember that, I'm pleased," she said before walking onto the stage yesterday.

Ms. Jewell was one of the first people with a visible disability to become a regular performer on a national television show decades ago in her role as Cousin Geri in the NBC sitcom Facts of Life.

Her time in the area, paid for with private foundation money and other donations from the Wood Lane Foundation Inc., the Arc of Wood County, the Ability Center of Greater Toledo, and others, is to continue today with visits to Wood Lane school, industries, and other programs.

Her movements, as she pointed out to the crowd, aren't all voluntary. Cerebral palsy is a motor disorder resulting from damage to the central nervous system, typically before or during birth.

Strangers, such as an airline stewardess who watched her try to stow her bag in an overhead compartment, sometimes think she's drunk.

"Some people are really rude," she said. "Other people are really nice and they invite me to their AA meetings."

Yesterday, however, Ms. Jewell said cerebral palsy wasn't what was bugging her. It was a bad hair day. And that, she had said to her stylist, was really bad. "Hey, this is the only part of my body that I can control," she said.

What's far more important to control, however, is one's outlook, she told the audience that included many people served by the Wood County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. "Despair is very disabling," she said.

Ms. Jewell has a fan in Nick Hyndman, a 12-year-old Perrysburg Junior High student who has cerebral palsy. He said Ms. Jewell's hour-long monologue followed by answers to questions from the crowd was great.

He too has hopes of a career that few people with cerebral palsy enter: The seventh grader, who uses a walker and a wheelchair, wants to be a football coach. "I love sports and I play sports and I love football the most," Nick said.

His mother, Amy, said she's told him to train for a backup career too. But she thought it was important that he meet an adult as successful as Ms. Jewell who has cerebral palsy.

As a child, Ms. Jewell, 49, was sent to a school for disabled children and didn't make friends with many children in her neighborhood. Laughter, in her early experience, was something that often hurt.

After seeing comedienne Carol Burnett and exchanging letters with her, she realized it was possible to get people to laugh with you, not at you.

Today, in addition to her television work, Ms. Jewell, who lives in Los Angeles, travels for 60 to 70 appearances a year. Since 1988, she also has been a trainer for corporations and government on hiring people with disabilities and complying with laws concerning the disabled.

Contact Jane Schmucker at: jschmucker@theblade.com or 419-337-7780.



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