Costello. Ernie. Robin. Kirk. You read these names and probably don’t know who they are or what they mean. But what if I added Abbott, Bert, Batman and Spock? Suddenly, they’re instantly recognizable as historic pairs.
Sometimes it only takes two people to be a team. Sometimes a person doesn’t know their mission in life until they find their partner. This is the case for Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach, an unlikely duo who have become a 2-man team both in life and on stage.
Berkson, born two minutes after his twin brother David, was briefly deprived of oxygen during the delivery, which resulted in cerebral palsy. Growing up without being able to sufficiently use his arms or legs, he was dependent upon others for many basic day-to-day activities like brushing his teeth and eating. When he was 12, his family hired a full-time aide to help him with things he couldn’t do on his own. That aide was Tim Wambach.
There is no way Wambach could have known how their friendship would eventually play out. On one of their first outings after he was hired, Wambach and Berkson went to a mall in the suburbs of Chicago. They ordered food at Taco Bell, and as Wambach helped Berkson eat, inevitably there was quite a bit of spillage. After all, there is a learning curve when it comes to feeding another human being that results in countless shirt stains, as anyone involved with toddlers can attest. As Wambach worried over this sticky situation, Berkson, with a wit clearly outpacing his age, said, “There’s no use crying over spilled Taco Bell.”
As Wambach laughed and relaxed, a friendship was born. They’ve been inseparable ever since.
“My body is in a wheelchair. My mind is not.” — Mike Berkson
Wambach began feeling a desire to become a motivational speaker and Berkson grew tired of people misunderstanding cerebral palsy. They developed a live show called “Handicap This!” It’s a show that tells their story as they dispel myths about people with disabilities while making audiences laugh, cry and learn.
“Within the first 60 seconds, you see Mike as Mike and not in a wheelchair,” Wambach told the Associated Press.
They have been performing their show for audiences around the country to rave reviews. They talk about the advantages of having cerebral palsy and really let the audience become a part of something deeper than a stage performance. Though Berkson has an ability to turn painful situations into comedy material for the show, there are parts of the show that are seriously intense.
In their show, Berkson and Wambach recreate a scene that happened in real life during the former’s freshman year. He talks about his dependence on others and how low it made him feel back then, including his desire to commit suicide. He was depressed and felt he could no longer take it. This is where Wambach steps in and relates his story of dropping out of college and going through real depression himself. He then tells how he gradually worked out his problems and shows the audience that the two friends are more alike than they are different.
Bringing People Together
Berkson isn’t trying to sugarcoat cerebral palsy. He says he still gets depressed sometimes, but this, of course, makes him a human. Everyone can relate.
“I don’t think of depression as being private,” he told the Huffington Post. “There’s nothing about me that’s private.”
Listening to the two men talk and tell their history illuminates the beautiful fact that it’s not a one-way street. They both rely on each other.
“In my situation, it’s hard to figure out what’s genuine and what’s not,” Berkson says. “I know Tim’s genuine… He helps me see the good in things. Sometimes it’s as simple as making me laugh when I’m in sick or in pain.”
The two friends aren’t satisfied with how far they’ve both come. They’re looking to expand their show and have some pretty lofty goals (which seem well within their reach). Their three big dreams are to perform “Handicap This!” on Broadway by September 2016, to have a major motion picture made about their relationship and to host Saturday Night Live. And why not? To put it in SNL terms, they’re smart enough and they’re funny enough, and doggone it, people like them.
Keep On Keeping On
They created “Handicap This!” due in part to the huge impact their Keep On Keeping On Foundation had on people. It is a non-profit with two main goals: helping alleviate the financial cost of living with a severe disability and advocating for the physically disabled.
The “Handicap This!” website also links to their blog and podcast, where they offer regular insights on living with a physical disability. Their podcast, “The G.I.M.P. Show (Gifted Intelligent Motivating People)” highlights the stories of remarkable people overcoming physical disability to accomplish great things in music, sports and day-to-day life.
“Handicap This!” is a dynamic show that speaks to every age level and every demographic, provoking laughter, tears and deep thought. But its universal appeal is clear in the words that are repeated, over and over, in their reviews — words like inspirational, moving and true.
- “Both of them are totally an inspiration to me.”
- “Their lack of fear, their bravery, their heart … I love their heart.”
- “It was amazing. It touched on so many difficult situations that you might have questions about but were afraid to ask. It made it incredibly comfortable.”
- “The most honest presentation I’ve ever seen.”
- “They’re not just talking about cerebral palsy. They’re talking about everyone’s abilities, everyone’s handicaps. They’re talking about emotions—things that have nothing to do with that wheelchair.”
Check It Out
In recognition of their spirited work on behalf of the cerebral palsy community, we are very proud to feature Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach as our I Define Me honorees this month. If you know someone who deserves to be highlighted for their contributions to the cerebral palsy community, please let us know.