"I still laugh better than I talk," Jim Brady told the Kennedy Center crowd.

Ronald Reagan's press secretary suffered brain damage in 1981 when he was hit by a bullet aimed at the president. He received a standing ovation, loud applause and repeated cries of "Bravo" last night when he walked slowly across the Concert Hall stage, using a cane, to open an evening of talk, laughter and entertainment aptly titled "The Victory of the Human Spirit."

Brady and Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who is an epileptic, served as cochairmen for the celebration, which was sponsored by Washington's newly opened National Rehabilitation Hospital. Members of the near-capacity audience had paid anywhere from $25 to $1,000 to be there.

Coelho, for his part, drew upon the words of the Roman statesman Seneca, observing that "Life is long if it is full." And the occasion was demonstrably full of life and humor.

Hosted by actor Robert Guillaume, the evening offered an array of entertainment, including Wynton Marsalis, Lee Greenwood, Marie Osmond, Lynda Carter, Henny Youngman, Bob Anderson and Geri Jewell.

Jewell, a comedian, has cerebral palsy and makes it the theme of her humor. She brought up a recent visit to the White House: "The first lady will never forget me. Remember all that china she bought? Well, it wasn't Corning Ware."

"I have CP," she told the black-tie audience. "That's not to be mistaken for MS, MD, ATT or PMS. Now a lot of people don't understand what CP is . . . This isn't a telethon, so I can't tell you."

The audience laughed. Jewell was right, it was a fundraiser, but it was not a telethon. Primarily, the evening celebrated the National Rehabilitation Hospital and honored four people who have risen to the challenge of physical adversity. In this, its inaugural year, the recipients of the Victory of the Human Spirit Award were Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), actress Ann Jillian, political activist Ted Kennedy Jr. and singer Teddy Pendergrass.

"I am pleased to have been left on the face of this Earth to continue something that I enjoy -- my music," said Pendergrass, who was partially paralyzed in an automobile accident four years ago. "The best way that I can thank you is with what I do best -- that is my music." And Pendergrass sang his current hit single, "Love 4/2."

Kennedy, who lost a leg to cancer when he was 12 years old, said, "I reject the term 'handicap' and the term 'disabled.' They set boundaries in people's minds."

As with each of the others, the audience gave Dole a standing ovation. The senator joked, "I accept the nomination." Turning serious, he observed that awards are more often given in recognition of power gained, but that this evening the honors were going to those who have "lost power in some respect." Dole, who was severely wounded in World War II, reflected that a disability "is a great character builder. You become a stronger person . . . more sensitive to the needs of those around you . . . It may really be a blessing."

Jillian, who underwent a radical double mastectomy last year, returned to work 11 days later. The purpose of the National Rehabilitation Hospital and the examples set by the honorees, she said, was "to get players off the bench and back into the game."

Janine Weiss, the hospital's media adviser, said she hoped the evening would raise between $500,000 and $1 million, but the final figure was not available.

Honorary chairman Nancy Reagan was not present. Earlier yesterday she dedicated the Loyal Davis Neuroscience Center at the National Rehabilitation Hospital -- named in honor of her late father, a surgeon.