September’s “I Define Me” honorees Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach are the dynamic duo behind “Handicap This!,” a two-man live show that uses comedy, theater and hard facts to educate and empower audiences about the realities of living with physical disability.
We had the privilege of interviewing Mike (with some chiming in from Tim) about the process of forming a team, finding your mission in life and the future of “Handicap This!”
It’s been about 14 years since the two of you met. Tim, you were hired as Mike’s full-time aide. What were your expectations before you met Mike? Was it just a job, or were you hoping for more of a connection? There’s no way (I’m guessing) you could have known how close you would become with Mike.
Tim: Going into meeting Mike for the first time, I really didn’t have any expectations. Anytime you are working with someone as a one-on-one, it is more than a job. For me, there has to be a connection. However, I had absolutely no idea how deep our connection would be. You never know the impact your decisions can have on your destiny.
Mike, how long did it take before you began to trust Tim and feel you two were becoming friends?
Mike: Trust is something that is a big part of my life. It didn’t take long to trust Tim. He just kind of threw himself into my life. He was funny, loyal, and you could tell he was genuine.
Who had the idea for the book How We Roll, and were you both in agreement from the beginning that it was a good idea? What was the writing process like?
Tim: I just felt that we had a story to tell and a story that could benefit others. Mike and I created an outline of our relationship with all the important events. Mike wrote the introduction and I wrote the book from my perspective.
Mike: It was Tim’s idea.
Tim, when you decided to embark on your run to raise awareness for cerebral palsy, how did the publicity you received start? Word of mouth? Did local TV stations start picking up the story?
Tim: The run from Orlando, FL to Chicago was an idea I had on April 1, 2005. The magnitude of the date is not lost on me. At first, I thought this idea was some cosmic joke. The run actually started on Aug. 1, 2005. So, as I started training, and telling more people about it, little by little, local newspapers wrote articles about it. As for the run itself, I only got publicity at the beginning of the run in Orlando. A local TV station was there and the Orlando Sentinel did a story, and then Mike and I were on the front page of the Chicago Tribune as well. We will be doing the run again in July 2016. We are definitely more confident in being able to get news outlets to pick up the story our second time around.
Mike, what was your role back home? Were you two in communication during the month-long run?
Mike: My role was that I started the run with Tim, he pushed me about a quarter mile, and then I flew back home. While Tim was running, he would call me to give me updates. I would ask him if he was still alive…you know, stuff like that.
The two of you have written a book, started a podcast, wrote a blog and given speeches across the country. Is it just a coincidence that two extremely motivated people have come together, or do you two feed off of each other as far as ideas, how to push boundaries, etc.?
Mike: Tough question. Honestly, I think everything that we have has really come organically and can be traced back to the run. After the run, that was the domino that fell, and once it did, that is when we started getting asked to do speaking engagements. Once we did a few speaking engagements, we decided to turn our relationship into a two-man stage show, then we started doing an online video series, then we started our podcast, now we have created a digital version of our show for middle schools, and high schools to access via the Internet. The fact that we both are creative and willing to push the envelope makes it that much more fun. Our fans seem to love our t-shirts; we are in the process of creating a few more designs. We are always looking for ways to work new material to our show so it’s always fresh.
One of your podcasts is about “disability in pop culture.” It seems to me, that from the 1950s to the 2010s, pop culture has grown increasingly inclusive of minority groups (racial minorities, minorities of sexual orientation, etc.). Clearly there is a long way to go, but do you think pop culture has gotten better in their portrayal of people with disabilities?
Mike: “Better” is a pretty subjective word—compared to what? We feel that there is huge room for improvement. Geri Jewell was on Facts of Life in the 80’s. But that was 30 years ago—not sure why there haven’t been more actors or actresses with a physical disability in the mainstream. Of course, we can come up with examples; it just seems that there are not enough of them. The general public needs to become more comfortable with people who have disabilities. That is what we are trying to accomplish with our show.
What is the best part of life on the road (traveling to perform speaking engagements)?
Mike: Coming home? LOL. Honestly, meeting all kinds of people. We would never have been able to meet so many incredible people if we didn’t travel. Whether it is boarding a plane, dealing with handicap-accessible rental agencies, looking for a seat at a restaurant—all these things give us lots to talk about and even laugh about. We always go over the positives and negatives of each performance or speaking engagement while making our way back home.
They say show business (especially in NYC) is about who you know. Have you guys made any connections in the show business world that might help with your dream of starring on Broadway?
Mike: We have made a few connections here and there. Our belief is that the right person will be in the audience of one of our shows and that person hasn’t come yet.
Where are you guys focusing most of your energy right now? Busy with speaking gigs? The podcast? Something new?
Mike: Most of our energy is focused on our online product—this is a game-changer. This allows our message, story and relationship to be in many, many schools at the same time. We will have the ability to reach way more students this way! This will go a long way at combat bullying, promote inclusion and build community.
Mike, is there something you would like to say to other people with cerebral palsy who might be frustrated with their life?
Mike: Not a day goes by that I don’t entertain some pretty dark thoughts. Everyone has their own journey. Keep searching for answers and keep looking for the positives. This isn’t always easy, but it has to be done.