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Pair preaches tolerance through humor at Lawrence High

Mike Berkson, left, who has cerebral palsy, and

Mike Berkson, left, who has cerebral palsy, and his friend and aide Tim Wambach, perform their show "Handicap This!" at Lawrence High School. (Oct. 21, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

At a time when bullying is under increased scrutiny, Handicap This! Productions brought a dimly lit auditorium of ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders from sympathetic quiet to laughter and applause of encouragement, all while sharing a message of acceptance, understanding and tolerance.

"So many times we get caught up in our differences that we lose sight of our likenesses, of our humanity, of what binds us all together," said Tim Wambach, 39, co-founder and managing director of Handicap This! and one part of the two-man act.

Mike Berkson, 24, is the duo's other half and co-founder of the Chicago-based group. He was diagnosed with mixed quadriplegia cerebral palsy shortly after birth -- he has no control over his legs, arms and torso -- and uses a wheelchair, Wambach said, though that doesn't stop him from delivering punch lines and giving spirited advice.

"I knew Mike was intelligent and mature and hilarious, but others didn't necessarily see that when they saw Mike," Wambach said.

Together, Wambach and Berkson began Handicap This!, a traveling entertainment company that strives to "combat ignorance, teach awareness and motivate by example" through comedy, according to their website.

The hourlong presentation focused on the message "judgment is not allowed" -- demonstrating through anecdotes and analogies from Berkson and Wambach's lives the effects that consciously and unconsciously uninformed actions of teachers, students and strangers have on their victims.

The two men performed at Lawrence High School at the request of Missy Miller, 49, of Atlantic Beach, whose son Oliver, 13, is the first student to attend Lawrence with his level of physical and developmental disabilities.

Oliver was born with a brain injury that left him blind, prone to seizures and suffering from cerebral palsy, among other conditions. He can walk with aid, but uses a wheelchair.

"Someone like Oliver has never had friends -- peers -- and I wanted this message to introduce him to the school," Miller said. "He's been coming since the fall but we gave it some time to let people see him around. It's so important to me that the student body accept him."

Wambach said he made a special effort to fit the Lawrence High School performance in because Miller "is a parent who loves her son and wants him to have the best possible experience" in school.

Miller said it was wonderful that the school has taken on the "enormous challenge" of bringing a child with Oliver's needs into a mainstream school.

Teacher Dianne Ronan said Oliver is enrolled in the life skills class, where the needs of students with trouble learning are met on a more individual level. He works around students of his own learning level with the help of a nurse and an aide.

These aides, while often not specifically trained for work with their disabled charge, can be of vital emotional and physical support to the people they help, said Wambach, whose relationship with Berkson began in just such a manner.

Berkson was 12 and entering eighth grade, and Wambach was 27 and working temporarily as an aide. The bond they forged, Wambach said, has carried the two through good times and bad.

"It's people like Mike who help people like me to see the greatness in myself, but more importantly to see the greatness in others and to dare to believe in my own goals and dreams," Wambach said at the close of their performance. "I may be Mike's arms and legs, but he's my breath."

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