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Actress Geri Jewell, right, known for her role on the television show "The Facts of Life," laughs while signing a copy of her book for Marian Letcher, left, on Tuesday at the Cal Schultz Awards Luncheon, organized by the Mitchell Advisory Council for People with Disabilities. Jewell talked about dealing with cerebral palsy while working in Hollywood. (Chris Huber/Republic)

'Facts of Life' actress talks about living with cerebral palsy

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Geri Jewell has her own version of the facts of life.

Jewell, a former regular on the 1980s television show "The Facts of Life," related her struggles with cerebral palsy Tuesday during her speech at the Mitchell Advisory Council for People with Disabilities' eighth annual Cal Schultz Awards Luncheon, which honors the accomplishments of local people with disabilities.

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The luncheon was at County Fair Banquet Hall in Mitchell.

Cast as Geri Taylor, a teenage girl with cerebral palsy, Jewell helped raise awareness about the condition that affects motor function. She was the first person with visible disabilities to be cast in a recurring role on a primetime television show.

"It's something I dealt with early on because I have been this way since I was born," Jewell said. "It's not like you wake up and say, 'Oh, I still have CP.' "

Despite the struggles in her life, it was the hopeful personality and infectious laugh that shined through during her speech.

She was ridiculed during childhood because of her disability, so watching television was a way for her to escape. She was at the right place at the right time when she landed her role on "The Facts of Life."

"1981 was the International Year of Disabled People, so I was really coming into Hollywood at the exact right time," Jewell said.

Jewell's entertainment roots started with stand-up comedy, and that experience showed in her speech. The roughly 50 people in the audience were laughing to the point of tears at times.

She told stories of her perseverance while in Hollywood, including telling producers she wanted to play sports, not knowing they would set up a doubles match with John McEnroe, Arthur Ashe and Dr. Ruth.

"After watching me play, McEnroe asked me if it would be OK if he served all the balls since ABC's 'Wide World of Sports' was only an hour-long show and who knows how many minutes it would take me to hit it once," Jewell said while laughing.

She also told of the time she appeared on "Sesame Street" and accidentally knocked off Big Bird's head because she told producers she could roller skate when she really couldn't.

"The kids were yelling 'Oh no -- you killed Big Bird.' They probably are still in therapy because of it.

"Sometimes with CP," she added, "you want to go left but your brain says nope, you are going right."

She said being able to laugh at herself is one of her most important traits.

Besides telling stories of her time in Hollywood, Jewell also spoke about how people with disabilities should be treated.

"Everyone talks about tolerance for people with disabilities. I have been tolerated all my life, and I hate it," Jewell said. "I don't want to be tolerated. I want to be respected."

She talked about how adversity saved her life and framed who she was as a person, telling the story about how she landed a role on the HBO series "Deadwood."

Jewell was standing in a pharmacy line waiting for medication for a surgery on her neck when someone remarked about the quality of her acting.

That someone turned out to be David Milch, known for being the producer of "NYPD Blue."

Milch offered her a spot in his new series, "Deadwood."

"I remember looking up as far as I could and saying 'God, you have a quirky sense of humor. I am standing here with CP and a broken neck, and David Milch wants me to ride a horse.' "

During the question-and-answer portion of the lunch, one attendee asked Jewell if she had any boyfriends.

Jewell said matter-of-factly, "I am going to be really honest with you, none, because I'm gay."

Her new book, titled "I'm Walking as Straight as I Can," is a memoir that not only chronicles her struggle to be taken seriously in Hollywood but also her struggle to come to terms with her sexuality.

Jewell is continuing to work in Hollywood and travels as a motivational speaker for disability groups.

After Jewell's speech, MACPD president Jennifer Barnes handed out the Cal Schultz Memorial Awards.

Pizza Hut received the Employer of the Year award, with Manager Laura Wiepen accepting.

The Employee of the Year award went to Zach Wudel, of Mitchell, for his work at AKG Midwest.

The Cal Schultz Awards Luncheon is named after the late and longtime former Corn Palace mural designer, who was afflicted with post-polio syndrome, which affected his mobility.

Chris Huber/Republic

Actress Geri Jewell, right, known for her role on the television show "The Facts of Life," laughs while signing a copy of her book for Marian Letcher, left, on Tuesday at the Cal Schultz Awards Luncheon, organized by the Mitchell Advisory Council for People with Disabilities. Jewell talked about dealing with cerebral palsy while working in Hollywood.

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