Midway through their two-man improv show, Mike Berkson asked his good friend Tim Wambach to give his best impression of someone from Wisconsin.
“Grab a beer and a brat and we’ll go to Kenosha,” Wambach said obediently.
How about an Indian accent?
“That will be $2.75 for that Slurpee,” Wambach said, striking a higher pitch.
How about a New Jersey accent?
“Ya want me ta dispose of da body befoh or aftah … “
Wambach probably did finish that sentence, but it was hard to hear, because an auditorium crowded with hundreds of university students burst into laughter earlier this month in Scranton.
Berkson and Wambach deliberately included a great deal of humor in “Handicap This!,” an interactive show designed to help people re-examine their attitudes toward people who have physical or mental challenges.
But one of the reasons for showcasing all the accents — yes, there were others — was to show that the words Wambach spoke hinted at stereotypes. “And stereotypes can hurt,” said Berkson, who with a cerebral-palsy diagnosis that came shortly after he was born, has faced more than his share of people who look his way and see not him but his wheelchair.
They don’t see his intelligence, the light in his eyes or the friendliness of his smile, said Wambach, who began to notice those qualities when he became Berkson’s personal aide back in 2001, when Berkson was 12 years old.
The dynamic duo, who sometimes have compared themselves to Batman and Robin, presented their show two weeks ago at the University of Scranton DeNaples Center, during the 12th annual Northeastern United States Conference on disABILITY.”
They explained the challenges of cerebral palsy, which can make muscles too stiff or too floppy. “He slouches a lot,” Wambach said, adjusting his friend in his chair and gently pushing his glasses back on his nose.
Other symptoms can include lack of muscle coordination, tremors or involuntary movements, delays in reaching motor skills, favoring one side of the body, difficulty walking and problems with swallowing or speaking.
All four of Berkson’s limbs are affected, his speech can be difficult to understand, like an accent, and he spends much of his time in a wheelchair.
“In layman’s terms, it means I’m f****d,” Berkson said, getting another round of appreciative laughter.
Cerebral palsy isn’t contagious, Berkson said, remembering how a lot of children he encountered when he was younger used to shy away from him.
The disorder is caused by an abnormality or disruption in brain development, usually before a child is born but sometimes during or shortly after the birth process if, for example, the baby is deprived of oxygen.
After Berkson was born — along with his able-bodied twin brother — doctors told his parents they shouldn’t expect much from him. They said he would never talk. But he proved them wrong, developing a zeal to express himself through language.
Looking back on an early outing the two shared to a fast-food restaurant, Wambach recalled how impressed he was that a 12-year-old was telling him he had a “hankering” for Mexican food. Off they went to get some, and the pair proceeded to have one messy experience.
“He had tortillas on his toes, beef on his belly, lettuce in his lap, salsa on his shoes and cheese in places you did not want to have cheese,” Wambach said, remembering how he, as the aide, felt he had failed Berkson.
But when young Mike told him, “There’s no need to cry over spilled Taco Bell,” the aide said simply, “I was hooked.”
Over the next 12 years the two would share many joys and frustrations as well as bathroom breaks — Berkson can’t take care of those biological needs on his own.
They’ve also taken their show on the road, urging audiences to get to know people who have handicaps and to understand they all have different gifts and needs.
One size doesn’t fit all, Berkson said, explaining how some teachers used to become annoyed with him when he shouted out an answer in class. But one innovative teacher, realizing Berkson couldn’t raise his hand to be called on, devised a light that would illuminate when Berkson pushed a button.
Improvise, adapt and overcome, the duo said. “Let your mind be handicap-accessible.”