Clarion, Pa.- “Handicap This!” is described on its website as an “honest message of inclusion and tolerance, a visceral experience of laughter and tears, a unique theater experience that in 71 unconventional minutes will educate, empower and entertain.”
On Monday, Oct. 26, the University Activities Board hosted Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach as they brought this experience to Clarion University. The presentation discussed Berkson’s lifelong struggle with cerebral palsy, the role Wambach plays in this struggle, and just a few of the countless experiences they have shared together.
Wambach was 27 years old and searching for his way in life when he first met Berkson, who was just a 12-year-old seventh grader at the time. When first hired to be Berkson’s daily aid, Wambach would help Berkson with everyday activities such as taking notes for class, eating, changing clothes and using the bathroom. Through these daily interactions, Berkson and Wambach began to form a relationship that would soon shape their lives and themselves fundamentally and irrevocably.
In January 2003, Wambach accompanied Berkson during his first time away from home and family on a school field trip to Washington, D.C. It was through this trip that Wambach would get a better understanding of the struggles Berkson deals with on a daily basis. In the years following, the bond between the two grew stronger as did their desire to bring awareness to those with disabilities like Berkson’s, who comprise the largest minority group in the nation.
In order to bring attention to Berkson’s story, Wambach embarked on a cross country run from Orlando, Florida to Glenbrook South High School where Berkson was a junior at the time. The run, which was successfully completed, drew national attention and provided a springboard for the duo to launch their next initiative, the “Keep on Keeping on Foundation.” The foundation is dedicated to helping those living with severe physical disabilities like cerebral palsy, and has helped families pay for therapy, equipment, home modifications and motorized wheelchairs all in an effort to help both the child and the family.
The presentation touched on both lighthearted and darker aspects of living with cerebral palsy. For all that he has gone through, many agreed that Berkson shows an incredible tenacity and indomitable optimism in the face of tremendous adversity.
The event highlighted Berkson’s robust sense of humor, where, according to the duo, either “everything is on the table, or nothing is” and his “infectious laughter.”
Despite this optimism, Berkson admits to harboring thoughts of suicide on a regular basis from the overwhelming difficulties of living with his condition. In one of the presentation’s most touching, honest and memorable moments, Berkson delivered a monologue concerning his suicidal thoughts and what keeps him going.
Notably, Berkson touched on the tragic irony that even if he “wanted to pull that trigger and end it all, [he] couldn’t” due to his physical handicaps. The presentation also touched on some of Wambach’s darker days when he was in his early 20s, wherein he also entertained suicidal thoughts, and how this common experience brought him and Berkson even further together and closer.
There was laughter, there were tears, and there was an indelible focus on advocacy, both in a broad scope as well as specifically for the awareness, assistance and well-being of disabled or handicapped persons. Berkson’s father, who was in attendance and also served as mic-runner during the post-presentation Q&A session, touched on the importance of advocacy and activism, saying that “regardless of what you stand for, stand for something.”
The catchphrase for the event was “improvise, adapt and overcome.” This was evident as the two speakers shed light on Berkson’s situation by injecting a lot of humor into the night’s presentation.
The laughs were definitely had but were based on an uncoventional source. Berkson joked about his disability, and it caused some laughs.
The presentation closed with comments from Berkson and Wambach discussing their special relationship, the experiences they have shared and the greater message of their program. Above all, “Handicap This!” promotes advocacy, awareness and general goodwill toward one’s fellow neighbor, especially those with particular or extraordinary needs.