Actress/Comedienne Geri Jewell has written a new book entitled I’m Walking as Straight as I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond. The 54-year-old actress got her first recurring role playing “Cousin Geri” on the 1980’s sitcom “The Facts of Life.” Born with cerebral palsy, Jewell made television history as the first recurring role played by a person with a serious disability. More recently, she has played Jewel on the hit HBO series Deadwood. The book, which is to be released on April 1st, refers not only to the fact that Jewell is admitting to being a lesbian, but also to the difficulties she faced as a disabled actress, and a drug problem and an accident that nearly claimed her life.
The term cerebral palsy refers to any one of a number of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination but don’t worsen over time. Even though cerebral palsy affects muscle movement, it isn’t caused by problems in the muscles or nerves. It is caused by abnormalities in parts of the brain that control muscle movements. The majority of children with cerebral palsy are born with it, although it may not be detected until months or years later. The early signs of cerebral palsy usually appear before a child reaches 3 years of age. The most common are a lack of muscle coordination when performing voluntary movements (ataxia); stiff or tight muscles and exaggerated reflexes (spasticity); walking with one foot or leg dragging; walking on the toes, a crouched gait, or a “scissored” gait; and muscle tone that is either too stiff or too floppy. A small number of children have cerebral palsy as the result of brain damage in the first few months or years of life, brain infections such as bacterial meningitis or viral encephalitis, or head injury from a motor vehicle accident, a fall, or child abuse.
Cerebral palsy can’t be cured, but treatment will often improve a child’s capabilities. Many children go on to enjoy near-normal adult lives if their disabilities are properly managed. In general, the earlier treatment begins the better chance children have of overcoming developmental disabilities or learning new ways to accomplish the tasks that challenge them. Treatment may include physical and occupational therapy, speech therapy, drugs to control seizures, relax muscle spasms, and alleviate pain; surgery to correct anatomical abnormalities or release tight muscles; braces and other orthotic devices; wheelchairs and rolling walkers; and communication aids such as computers with attached voice synthesizers.