Stand Up Comedian Speaks of Life With Cerebral Palsy

mircophoneChildren with cerebral palsy grow up to be many things – including comedians. Comedian, actress, author, and motivational speaker Geri Jewell is proof of this. Geri began her 40-year career as a comedian in 1978, performing in clubs’ amateur nights. She uses her cerebral palsy to break the ice and connect with her audiences during comedy routines. Geri makes it okay to laugh about the quirks of having this condition, and serves as a role model for children with cerebral palsy everywhere.

Who is Geri Jewell?

Geri Jewell was born in 1956. She was born three months premature and with cerebral palsy, due to a brain injury she sustained in a car accident her mother suffered in her sixth month of pregnancy. Like many children with cerebral palsy, Geri had to deal with bullies and many other challenges growing up. She learned from a young age how to use comedy to diffuse bad situations. In Geri’s words, she compensated for being different and misunderstood by making people laugh. It was a skill she used to make others more comfortable around her.

At the age of 22, Geri dropped out of college to do comedy full-time at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood, in 1978. From the very beginning, she used her personal experiences to change the way others view disability. She performed at the 2nd Annual Media Access Awards in 1980, where she met Norman Lear, a television writer and producer. Later that same year, Geri landed a recurring role on The Facts of Life, making her the first person with a visible disability to have a recurring role on a prime-time series, as well as the first actor with cerebral palsy on a television series.

In her acting career, Geri is best-known for her part as “Cousin Geri” on The Facts of Life from 1980 to 1984. She also appeared in the shows 21 Jump Street, The Young and the Restless, Deadwood, and Glee, as well as a few feature films. Comedy is where Geri’s heart truly lies, however. Geri was a comedian before she was an actress, and continues her comedy routines today, at the age of 62. She says having cerebral palsy has fueled her career, and formed her approach to stand-up.

Cerebral Palsy in Geri’s Stand-Up Comedy

In the 1970s, Geri Jewell wrote to her idol at the time: comedienne Carol Burnett. She wrote a letter explaining that she, too, wanted to become a comedic actress and make people laugh. Geri says she was, “fascinated at the fact they were laughing with her, not at her.” Carol Burnett wrote Geri a letter in return, telling her to keep putting one foot in front of the other until she gets where she wants to go. It was important advice Geri kept with her, until she achieved her dream.

Geri has said the hardest skill for her to master in stand-up comedy is, “having the courage to confront people who dismiss me, take advantage of me, and devalue my presence.” As someone struggling with cerebral palsy, Geri has spent her entire life facing these types of people – those with misconceptions about the condition and the capabilities for those with cerebral palsy. She calls it a “stand-up muscle” she exercises by standing up to people who belittle or bully her into feeling like she doesn’t deserve what she wants in life.

Instead of letting her disability become an obstacle, Geri has used it to propel her forward. Her experience facing situations that go against her self-worth helped her become a better comedian. She says in the past she had trouble standing up for herself, because she was afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or getting into a confrontation. Now, however, she tries to always be honest and to go after what she really wants. She says each time she doesn’t stand up for herself, the universe gives her another chance to do so. Geri believes standing up in life – and in comedy – is the most important lesson she will ever learn.

What Geri Has to say to Youth With Cerebral Palsy

Geri Jewell didn’t realize the significance of her part on The Facts of Life until later. She received thousands of fan letters from people saying she changed their lives, but didn’t fully grasp the impact her role had on others with disabilities until after her stint on the show ended. It wasn’t until she could look back on the experience that she realized the magnitude of being the first person with a visible disability to appear on a TV show. Geri helped normalize cerebral palsy and educate viewers on all disabled people.

Today, Geri is a motivational speaker in addition to appearing in cable comedy shows. She is also a trainer and consultant for a variety of topics on disability and diversity. She has helped several major companies, including the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department the Treasury, become more disability-friendly. She uses her life with cerebral palsy to encourage others to follow their dreams, stand up for themselves, and to never give up.