Updated: Jun 22
Under the banner “Handicap This!” Chicago natives Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach travel the country promoting inclusion by sharing their real life story. Think Inclusive recently interviewed Berkson and Wambach to find out more.
The two first met in 2001 when Wambach became Berkson’s one-on-one classroom aide. Wambach explained “Mike has cerebral palsy and it affects his arms, legs, and torso leaving Mike virtually unable to do anything for himself.”
While limited physically, Berkson remains far from helpless. Through his academic career he stayed vocal giving his opinion. Something Berkson notes didn’t always receive a warm welcome. “Often times my opinion was taken as defiance, rather than my own valid observations” he said.
One such example exists in Berkson and Wambach’s two-man stage show titled Handicap This!, which captures the two’s real life story. Said example deals with therapists urging Berkson to learn to use a joystick operated electric wheelchair so he could become more independent. He declined, causing the professionals to deem Berkson’s choice a rebellious act. By doing so the professionals overlooked the student’s valid reasoning.
As he explains in the stage show Berkson found the focus required to maneuver the joystick exhausting. How will the independence benefit him if constantly drained mentally? Plus Berkson points out the joystick could not retrieve items from a shelf or assist him in other like tasks. Thus exactly how much more independent could the chair make him?
Insights like the aforementioned could open up an educator’s mind, allowing him or her to rethink various special education issues. Not just teachers, staff, and administrators benefit from Handicap This though, a fact made clear when asking about the two’s most memorable feedback. Wambach recalled a show in Owensboro, KY from September 2012 when the tandem performed for 1,000 plus students ranging from sixth graders to high schoolers.
“Before our show started, there were a group of able-bodied eighth grade students who were making fun and bullying some special needs students who were sitting in front of them. They stopped when our show started, but the real magic is what happened after our show was over.”
He explained what he observed. “Those eighth grade students who were bullying those special needs students, went up and apologized to all the students and to their teachers as well.” Wambach excitedly added, “Talk about an immediate impact!”
Interestingly enough the bond Wambach and Berkson share allowing them to make an impact on others experienced naysaying when first formed. Wambach’s co-workers warned him against getting too close to Berkson. Asked how he responded to such criticism Wambach said “I respected their opinions and respectfully disagreed with their stances.”
Wambach provided his reasoning. “Being in the situation Mike is and so many other students are; their lives are filled with uncertainty. There aren’t a lot of positive constants. There are however a lot of negative constants. I looked at our relationship as a positive constant for Mike. I wanted to help him and his family anyway that I could. So, I did not tow the company line… I knew that I had Mike’s best interest in mind and I acted accordingly.”
Such behavior reflected Wambach’s respect for Berkson as an individual, not just a special needs student. Berkson emphasized individuality when asked what advice they would offer educators to create an inclusive environment. His answer, “One size does not fit all. Don’t let the diagnosis blind you to see the individual.”
Chiming in Wambach said “Definitely! One size does not fit all is the perfect analogy. Often time educators are quick to teach out of the textbook as opposed to teaching the individual. Be creative. Think outside the box. Be bold. Learn from your students. They might just have a wealth of information for you!”