ERC celebrates 50 years with nationally known disability advocate

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 145 views 

The Elizabeth Richardson Center started serving the needs of people with disabilities in 1963. It now has 10 locations throughout Northwest Arkansas and services more than 600 adults and children annually.

The center’s five child development centers provide therapy services for children aged six weeks to five years in a preschool-style setting with state-approved curriculum. Adults with disabilities can receive vocational training, job placement, life skills training, independent living options and community involvement through the center. 

To celebrate its 50 years of service, ERC invited Geri Jewell, an award-winning author, performer and motivational speaker, to share her insights and infectiously joyous outlook with clients, friends of the organization and the community. Perhaps best known for her groundbreaking role in the prime-time sitcom NBC’s "The Facts of Life," Jewell moved on to appear on various television shows and is also stand-up comedienne.

Born with cerebral palsy, Jewell became the first person with a noticeable disability to be cast as a regular on prime-time television. Throughout her career and outside of work, Jewell has faced discrimination and ignorance.   

She shared how her world changed after being cast on "The Facts of Life." A usually private person, she was instantly in the spotlight.

“I was now known by everyone. Even to this day I get recognized,” the 57-year-old actress said.

She shared stories from throughout her career – stories of humorous ways she handled people’s discomfort with her disability. Woven through each story was a lesson for all, regardless of disability.

For example, Jewell shared about getting frustrated when she was asked to attend celebrity sport events but was never asked to play any of the sports. She realized that if she wanted to play the sport, she needed to be proactive and ask. She ended up playing a doubles tennis match with Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe and sex therapist Dr. Ruth.

Jewell said she was blessed to have an early diagnosis of the cerebral palsy at 18 months old. The problem in the 1950s, however, was that “once you start in the system you can’t get out.”

Although the therapies she received were excellent, she also did not have a “normal” interaction with children who do not have disabilities until she went to high school in ninth grade. That meant she struggled with emotional and social situations at times. Her education was also still very guided by adults who planned her schedule as a mix of special education and mainstream education courses.

“I was very intelligent but still had very little say on my (education),” she said.

Jewell remembered her English teacher who took the time to realize her intelligence despite Jewell not doing a book report in the appropriate way. Instead of forcing her out of the mainstream English course and into special education, the teacher took time to guide Jewell through the thinking process that she had never been taught before.

“Mrs. Hanson taught me how to write,” Jewell said. “She was one of the teachers who helped me achieve my dreams.”

Jewell also shared stories of her childhood home life and how her parents established high expectations for her just like they did for her siblings.

“My parents were wise,” she said. “I wouldn’t have made it in life if they (had treated me different).”

She shared other stories about how people treated her strangely or even as a young child because they assumed she was cognitively impaired. 

“Even if I was, why would it matter?,” she reported telling an airport employee. “You should talk to everyone the way you want to be treated. Don’t patronize any one.”

Jewell closed the evening by encouraging the audience to never let their “pilot light” go out. 

“Even in my lowest of lows I never gave up,” she said. “I always had that pilot light in me. We all have that.”