Pediatrician's parable: Meet Israel’s first doctor with cerebral palsy

Living with cerebral palsy is not easy. Becoming a doctor with cerebral palsy is thought to be a miracle. 


Welcome To Holland

By Emily Perl Kingsley
c1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley. All rights reserved .

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this...... 

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.


Geri Jewell (left) on The Facts of Life

A Real Jewell

Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1989 -- All rights reserved
This first appeared in Laughing Matters Volume 5, Number 3

Geri Jewell is a jewel of a human being. This caring, talented comedienne's life has been a victory of the human spirit. She weighed three pounds at birth, and spent her first three months in an incubator. Cerebral palsy, a nervous system disorder reflected in the inability to control muscle movements, was diagnosed a year later. 

Ordinarily, CP is no laughing matter. But Geri has found laughter to be the vehicle to transcend her disability, to pursue her show business career, and to enhance the public's understanding of the capabilities of those with disabilities.

"I don't believe in limits," she says. "So many people are afraid to try, afraid to fail. The real triumphs come when you get out of the safety zone and take risks. My comedy is about the human condition. I'm trying to tell people they should give themselves more credit, feel less victimized, not be stopped by the judgments other people put on them."

Geri has a quick mind, a ready quip, and a natural, infectious vivacity. It's wonderful being around her. She believes, "Humor should be a prescription for life. It's okay to take life seriously, but if you can't laugh at yourself, you lose the joy of living."

Image result for the facts of life tv showGeri has brought much joy and laughter to her audiences. She has worked major comedy clubs in Los Angeles and New York. In fact, Norman Lear "discovered" her on one such occasion, and before long, she found herself in a major role on NBC's THE FACTS OF LIFE prime-time series. She has made featured appearances at the White House, The Kennedy Center, and for numerous organizations and conventions throughout the country.

Geri believes "the best comedy draws on life." It's a fact of life that Geri Jewell can draw very well. I'm delighted to introduce this friend to you.

Joel Goodman: In the last two issues, we've interviewed some folks who have had their roots in Buffalo -Buffalo Bob Smith of Howdy Doody fame and political satirist Mark Russell. You also were born in the Buffalo-neck-of-the-woods. Are there some comedy genes running rampant there... or is there something in the water?

Geri Jewell: My parents always had a sense of humor. I can remember when I was a kid, my aunt was visiting and she told my mother that she wanted something light to eat. My mother served her a light bulb.

JG: This was years before the Bud Light commercials.

GJ: My mother discovered that. There has always been that thread in our family. I can't think of anybody in my family who doesn't have a sense of humor.

JG: If your mother were to give you advice about humor, what would it be?

GJ: It was never something that was formally discussed, but she always stressed to look at things in many different ways, not just one way. In fact, if I come up to her with an idea I have, she'll never readily accept it. She'll always say, "Well, OK. That's one way of looking at it." And I'll say, "Mom, it's the way of looking at it." She'll say, "No, no Geri. You're fooling yourself to believe that. Because you have chosen to look at it this way does not mean that there aren't 20 other ways to look at it." Mom has always stressed that there is always another side to it - always. That has kept me open to creative possibilities, because I'm always questioning.

JG: Any other childhood memories as you walk down Humor Lane?

GJ: I know this is going to seem really weird, but I grew up in a cemetery. My father worked for a cemetery for 25 years, so every Saturday my sister and I went to play in the park, and you'd think this is really morbid, but I really had a lot of fun. I enjoyed doing this, and I can remember I found a room once. I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I found this room with all these caskets. I started trying them all out, seeing which one I liked best. And I'm laying in them. When I was in one, this couple had come into the room. I had a choice - I could get out and scare them to death or I could pretend like I was dead and not move. Do you know how hard it is to not move with cerebral palsy? I was lying there trying so hard not to move, and then all of a sudden my one arm shot up in the air. Got in trouble, but oh well.

Having cerebral palsy was kind of like having cable television - without paying for it. You got the picture, but it was all scrambled. I should tell you that I came into the world this way, so it was no big deal. It's not like I woke up every morning and said, "Oh, my God, I've got cerebral palsy again!" As a kid, I was taught to believe that God created us in His own image, so I just naturally assumed that God had CP, too.

And you wonder why I grew up to be a comedienne. In college, I started out a theater arts major, and then I transferred over to psychology to try to figure out why I was a theater arts major.

JG: In trying to figure out the why's and how's of humor, I've learned a lot from the 200,000 people who have attended our programs to date. Many have told me that their early family upbringing was really a significant influence on how their sense of humor developed or if it developed. One of the things that we're doing as part of our Humor in Families Project (see LAUGHING MATTERS, Volume IV,

GJ: One of the reasons I handle cerebral palsy as well as I've had in the past is because my family always had a sense of humor about that. It's a gift, because what it did for me as a kid was that it created an environment that told me it was okay to have CP, and it was okay to fall down. It was okay to spill your milk. There was a permission to be myself, whereas a lot of pressure is put on some kids with disabilities-- "Walk straighter, do this, do that!" They become so inhibited and so self-conscious. I thank my family, because they have always given me permission to be me. In fact, I put more pressure on myself than anybody ever did. I'm very hard on myself. My parents and my family - my brothers and my sister - gave me room that I didn't even give myself.

JG: We help people look at how to develop that ability to laugh at ourselves: on the one hand, strive for excellence and do things as well as we can, but at the same time to be gentle with ourselves when we're imperfect, because by definition human beings are imperfect. Are there ways you have internally of reminding yourself to lighten up on yourself when you're kicking yourself in the tail?

GJ: I'll say to myself, "It won't matter a hundred years from now. Nobody will even care." I believe you're reborn every time you wake up in the morning. It's a brand new day, a brand new start. That has helped me, because in thinking that way, you can let go of what you did yesterday and try to do better today. You get a new chance. That has helped me a lot in lightening up on myself.

I was once invited to be on Sesame Street. I was really excited about this. The producer called me up and said, "You're on the show, but Geri, what other skills do you have besides stand-up? What can you do?" I said, "I can roller skate." He said, "Wow!" He was really impressed. He never asked me once if I knew how to stop. I don't know if you know this, but Sesame Street is filmed in front of a live audience of mothers and their four-year-olds. I came onstage showing off, going about 20 mph, and I realized that I could not stop. Either I was going to hit these mothers and their four year-olds or I was going to hit the camera, or I was going to hit Big Bird. I hit Big Bird. His head fell off-- these four year-olds were screaming that I killed him.

JG: Lucky for you Big Bird lives! If you're in the role of giving advice to parents-- your Mom gave you advice both by example and other ways-- what would you tell them?

GJ: It's important to have a sense of humor, especially when you have a child with a disability. If you take the disability so seriously, the child is going to learn to take the disability seriously. If that's the focus of everything, that's what the child's focus is going to be.

When I was a little kid, I could get away with a few things. My mother always insisted that the kids wash the dishes and set the table. Now, she didn't have me set the table for a long time, because I would naturally break a lot of things. When it came time that I was old enough to do the dishes, I thought, "Well, they think I'm going to break things, so I won't ever have to do the dishes." However, Mom thought I was old enough to do it, whether I had CP or not. I would go in there and almost deliberately break at least one dish a night. I thought if I did this enough, they would say, "Oh, she can't do it. Let your sister do the dishes." Then on my 11th or 12th birthday, I got a gigantic box. I opened it up and it was a set of plastic dishes. I was so mad.

JG: Subtle hint from Mom.

GJ: I didn't know how to react. She said, "I thought you'd be delighted. Now you can do the dishes with your brothers and your sister." My mother has an incredible sense of humor. I can remember Christmas one year. I was probably being a brat for a long time. Mom had wrapped up this enormous box. It was as tall as me, and I noticed that Gloria, my younger sister, didn't have a box that big. I thought, "Wow, I'm special."

I opened it up and it was completely empty. There was nothing in it, and my mother just looked at me like it was a way of telling me that my ego was getting out of line. It was a reminder that we were all special in this family.

I eventually was laughing hysterically about the empty box, because it was full of humor. There was a moral lesson in it. In growing up with a disability, you can feel like a total freak: you're not a part of and you're different, or the flip side of that is that you're different, and that difference is superior. There has to be a balancing of that, a constant reminder that you're a little bit different, but you're not superior nor inferior.

JG: That's such a tricky line to walk.

GJ: My brothers helped me walk that line. Both of them were exceptional in their use of humor. I can remember them getting me to laugh hysterically at myself. I had an incredibly supportive family.

My sister and my brothers never felt ashamed or inadequate to have me at their side. They loved to have me there, and that was so wonderful. It was a form of acceptance that I could never ever duplicate. It can only come from a loving family.

JG: For humor to be "loving", how do you draw the line between "laughing with others" and "laughing at others?"

GJ: The difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone is knowing that the person is in the joke too. If it's a private joke with yourself, and that person isn't in on it, you are laughing at the person, and you know intuitively whether that person is in on it. The cruelty comes in when you know consciously that this person is not laughing, is not in on this joke, or is laughing nervously. Humor definitely is a form of healing. It has to be. It shifts the chemistry in the brain to allow the brain to refocus.

JG: Are there any "humor challenge" areas in your life where you'd like to build your Laugh Quotient?

GJ: I can see the humor in a lot of things. One of the things that's really hard for me in having CP is when people think that I'm on drugs. I may be in a supermarket and people stare at me and give me dirty looks like I'm a junky. The thing that gets to me is that when I'm powerless to say anything and I have to accept that they're feeling this way about me. What am I supposed to do, go up to them and say, "Oh, by the way...I'm not on drugs. I just want you to know that." You can't do that. There's no room for it. That's when I have to find a private humor within myself and to say the joke is really on them because they don't know me. That's a precious kind of humor I can't share with anybody else, but it's something within my core that can keep me from becoming embittered about how people perceive me.

The flip side to that is that it has given me a wonderful ability to not be so quick to judge others, because I constantly deal with misjudgment and misperception all the time. What CP has done for me on a very positive level is that when I see something that I don't think is right or that I'm judging a person a certain way, it really has forced me to back up and say, "Whoa, wait a minute. How can you make a judgment? Have you walked in their shoes? Have you done what they did? No."

It's taught me in simple physics how many ways there are to look at the same thing, and again, that comes from the openness that I was allowed as a kid. That's why I don't feel really bad about cerebral palsy because it is an incredible gift in perception. It has constantly reminded me not to be judgmental of people, because I'm judged so much that I can only be sensitive to the judgmental aspect of life.

JG: My sister, Susan, has taught me not to prejudge people-- and to just be more open to a whole range of possibilities that my assumptions or perceptions may be accurate or they may not and to have more patience. It seems like your act, as you take it on the road different places, is a way of sensitizing people to some of these issues, and you use humor as a beautiful way of helping people to laugh about it and learn about it at the same time they develop a sensitivity to humor.

GJ: What I try to do through my comedy is teach people that we're all reflections of one another. I try to make them see the humanness of themselves within me. I try to create a common ground through my comedy.

JG: All of us have - whatever you want to call it - certain disabilities or things that we're not feeling confident or self-esteemed about or certain realities or limitations we need to work through or live within. As you look down the road for yourself, what are some challenges that you have for yourself up ahead, or what are some of the dreams that you have?

GJ: People have asked me what is the most difficult part about having cerebral palsy. In all honesty I'd have to say it's plucking my eyebrows. That's how I originally got pierced ears.

I have a lot of things that I want to do. I want to be accepted fully as an actress and a comedienne and have cerebral palsy be totally coincidental with that. I want my work to be recognized on a creative scale, not because I have cerebral palsy. That's a form of patronizing. I want to overcome that, and I'm doing that little by little.

I want to continue to motivate people. The reason for doing that is because of my own struggles and my own pain that I have gone through in self-acceptance. I would love to be able to lessen that just a little bit for someone else, maybe take off one year of struggling. I would love to see that pain be lessened for every person.

That's another thing - I don't look at pain and suffering as negative. I have always tried to understand and to grow from whatever pain I have been through and to look at the positive side of it and what I can do with it. What it's about is choosing a perspective of looking at life. I could choose to be very embittered and very negative, not just about cerebral palsy but about politics and everything in life. You have that choice.

JG: My wife, Margie, does programs on stress management. One of the things that she has taught me is that stress is not a event. It is a perception of an event. We can't necessarily control events or people around us, but what we can control is our perception of them, and therefore, our response to them.

GJ: Never let go of the belief in yourself. Don't be angry over hardships or pain that may come to you. Take them as a lesson, as a growing experience, so that the next time you're confronted with the same situation, you can handle it a little bit better. Life is a process; we wouldn't be here if we weren't supposed to learn from it. What would be the purpose of this whole thing if everything was cut out for us and everything was simple. Why are we here? What is the point of that? I accept life because it's my school, and I'm a student. We're all students, and we're all teachers to one another.

People have asked me over the years why did I go into show business. What was the purpose of it? I'd have to say that it has to do with Carol Burnett. I used to write her all the time when I was a kid, telling her that when I grew up I wanted to be a comedienne. She wrote me back when she could. She said, "Always go after it, don't quit, because then nobody could ever say to you that you didn't try." I took that advice. That meant a lot to a little kid - to have Carol Burnett say you can do it.

I incorporated it and believed in myself, and I can remember I went to the Carol Burnett Show back in 1973. I went with a girlfriend of mine who was in a wheelchair. They had this section in the studio in the back for wheelchairs. My girlfriend, Audrey, came up with this brilliant idea. She said to the usher, "Geri is deaf. She reads lips. She cannot see Carol Burnett's lips from back here." Out of all the ushers she could have picked, she picked one that knew sign language. I don't know sign language, and I'm gibberishing with my hands, and he thinks I'm speaking in some foreign language. We got our front row seat. Carol Burnett will never let me forget this. On her show, she always used to raise the houselights to accept questions from the audience, and naturally I was really excited. I was raising my hand, and my girlfriend looks at me and she says, "You can't ask her a question, you're deaf." Meanwhile, Carol is onstage going, "Yes, do you have a question? Do you have a question? Can you hear me?" I couldn't hear 'cause my girlfriend wouldn't shut up. So the usher yelled from the back, trying to save everyone, "Carol, she can't hear you-- she's deaf." I stood up without thinking and said, "No, I'm not." I realized that the whole studio audience was staring at me, so I said, "Oh my God, I can hear!"

JG: I can hear the laughter as you make your way around this country-- helping people to lighten their own self-imposed loads and to get new perspectives on potentially stressful reality.

GJ: I feel most alive when I'm helping other people in some way or another. I can feel that, and I feel good about myself. You can only help yourself through helping other people. I really believe that what goes around comes around. Helping other people is the bottom line. 

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