Comedic duo Handicap This does more than make people laugh — the pair advocates for people with disabilities.
Tim Wambach vividly remembers the first time he fed Mike Berkson a meal. Berkson was 12 at the time and wanted tacos. Wambach, now 41, had never fed another individual before. Things got messy to say the least, but it’s now a fond memory.
Berkson, 26, has cerebral palsy resulting in mixed quadriplegia. He can’t use his arms or legs and Wambach was his one-on-one aide from seventh through ninth grades, and again from 2007 to 2013.
“I liked him right off the bat,” Berkson says of Wambach. “No way could I have predicted where our relationship would go, but I knew we would be friends.”
Wambach and Berkson, who both currently live in the Chicago area, reunited after Berkson graduated from high school. Although Wambach wrote the book, How We Roll published in 2005 (originally published as Keep On Keeping On) about his time as an aide for Berkson and the pair had done speaking engagements discussing living with cerebral palsy, they wanted to do so much more to educate people on severe physical disabilities.
“We wanted to be a little bit irreverent in the sense that we didn’t want to be politically correct,” Wambach says of their show. “We wanted to have an attitude.
In 2010, they premiered their two-man comedic act, Handicap This, to an audience of about 60 people.
Entertaining is how Berkson describes their show, but making people laugh isn’t all that matters to him.
Mike Berkson, right, and Tim Wambach, left, sit on-stage ready to perform their two-man comedic act, Handicap This.
“The fact that we break down barriers and make such a positive difference is even better,” he says.
In their first years of performing Handicap This, they would ask complete strangers to feed each other tacos and sometimes even spaghetti. Audience members might find themselves leaving the show with a spaghetti sauce-soaked bib as memorabilia, but they also left with a new appreciation for their ability to do everyday tasks such as eating.
The duo likes to remind people that “judgment [is] not allowed” at their shows. Berkson will tell people to “look at the person, not [his or her] diagnosis” and to “focus on the abilities.” He does not let the wheelchair define him.
Since premiering Handicap This, the duo has performed at countless venues for corporations and high school and middle school students. Their largest performance was in 2013 for the Best Buddies Leadership Conference held at Indiana University to a crowd of almost 2,000 people, not to mention another 2,000 people live streaming the show internationally.
All kinds of people come to their shows and not just people with physical disabilities.
Wambach’s most memorable show wasn’t realized until a week or two after they performed to around 1,000 students in Owensboro, Ky., in 2012. Wambach found out shortly after performing that a group of freshmen were bullying special needs students.
“They were making fun of them and just not showing them any respect,” Wambach says.
Then Wambach and Berkson took the stage. Immediately after the show concluded, the bullies apologized to not just the special needs students, but also their teachers.
“We weren’t looking for validation. We knew people were responding to our message, but after hearing that story it gave us something to feel proud about, but also we’re making an impact immediately,” Wambach says. “I’ll never forget that story.”
People with cerebral palsy and parents of children with severe physical disabilities also frequent their show.
“They kind of look at Mike as their son or daughter and see Mike succeeding in the way he’s succeeding. It really is a beacon of hope for these parents,” Wambach says.
Laughter is the Best Medicine
Traveling with a disability can be difficult enough, but throw in a compromised immune system and the road seems even rockier. Because of his cerebral palsy, it takes Berkson longer than most to get over even a small cold.
Berkson admits that he never really has a good day.
“I’m always dealing with some ailment,” he says.
Handicap This isn’t all laughter and comedy. There’s a lot of honesty. Sometimes people are taken aback by the show’s tell-it-like-it-is attitude.
Berkson will open up on stage about his struggles with clinical depression and how he even contemplates suicide at times.
“People can see him physically and know that there’s something wrong, but what Mike is really good at hiding is that [he] struggles emotionally,” Wambach says. “It’s not the big things that affect him so much. It’s the little things that really add up to be big things. It’s not so much that he can’t walk — he accepts that. It’s more that he can’t brush his teeth, he can’t blow his nose. It’s that every little thing needs to be done for him.”
But it’s Berkson’s sense of humor that’s able to help him on his darkest days.
“Mike’s sense of humor is definitely his greatest asset,” Wambach says. “It’s what he uses to his advantage every day. He thinks everything is funny. Sometimes from my perspective you shouldn’t think everything is funny, but he does. And that works for him and that really does enable him to get through the day.”
Because Handicap This is dependent on Berkson’s physical being, and he’s often always battling through an illness, the pair got creative with how to keep spreading their message.
They teamed up with Mary Ringstad, speech and theater professor at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., to create video and curriculum for middle schools and high schools. Not only will this save schools money as it’s expensive to pay for the group’s travel expenses — they travel with four people — let alone appearance fees, but their act will be able to reach more people.
The duo’s educational video format is to be released this summer and schools will pay for annual access.
Wambach and Berkson also continue to work for their nonprofit organization, Keep On Keeping On, which was established in 2007. The organization works to assist people with severe physical disabilities.
To date, Keep On Keeping On has purchased hospital beds, paid for physical therapy and widened doorways to make homes more wheelchair-accessible. The organization even raised enough money to put an elevator into a home of a family with four children with cerebral palsy.
Wambach foresees Keep On Keeping On continuing through the years and hopes his children will continue to run the foundation when he no longer can. But Wambach understands he and Berkson can’t keep performing forever. Even though cerebral palsy isn’t believed to be a progressive disease, it’s not easy for Berskon to keep up with a demanding travel schedule.
But Berkson doesn’t let anything stand in his way, and neither him nor Wambach are giving up on their three biggest goals: perform Handicap This on Broadway, have a major motion picture made about their story and host Saturday Night Live.
For more information, visit facebook.com/HandicapThis.