If everyone is laughing

Disability rights activist and comedian Michael Beers looks to get back on the short bus 

It was serendipity. Last month, Michael Beers was driving fellow disability rights activist and comedian Nina G to the airport after the duo's week-long educational comedy tour of schools across western Montana. The tour was, in part, an experiment to see whether more comedy advocacy road trips would be possible in the future. As they made their way down Stephens Avenue, the pair spotted a short bus—the kind used specifically for students with disabilities—parked in a driveway with a "For Sale" sign in the window. Beers had been looking to buy one for years in hopes of taking it on the road with him.

They pulled over immediately.

The bus was owned by a former Beach Transportation driver, Gary Urquhart, who purchased the vehicle years ago with the intention of turning it into a camper. He'd never gotten around to it, but when he heard Beers' plan for the bus, he gave him a deal on it. It would need some basic work—including new tires and a paint job—but it still had a functioning wheelchair lift, which was a must for Beers' vision: a school-bus-turned-cool-bus, rigged for comedy tours, disability rights and education.

Beers is no stranger to short buses. He was born with VACTERL association, a collection of congenital medical conditions that affected, among other things, his spine, vision, kidneys and heart. (VACTERL stands for vertebral defects, anal atresia, cardiac defects, tracheo-esophageal fistula, renal anomalies and limb abnormalities.) The most visible aspects of the condition for him are an underdeveloped right arm and hand, as well as a bit of a swagger when he walks. Adopted as a baby by a Missoula couple, his childhood was dotted with corrective surgeries that required him to use a wheelchair—and the short bus—for three years while most other kids in the neighborhood biked to school.

Beers says he wasn't the victim of teasing or bullying at school, but he did struggle with years of trying and failing to fully fit in with his peers.

"I was self-conscious," Beers says. "I wasn't doing very well in school because I was trying to be who you were. I was trying to find a table to sit at in the lunchroom. I was trying to be exactly like you because there's no table for adopted Native Americans with four fingers—at least that I could find."

Things started to change in middle school, with the help of a sixth grade teacher who finally convinced Beers that getting a few special accommodations (extra time on tests, books on tape) wasn't cheating. Later, the drama teacher at Hellgate High School, Bolton Rothwell, recognized Beers' talent for comedy.

"People talk about what being a teacher is, but at the heart of it, it's people who find kids' superpowers," Beers says. "They see the power in you before you do and they nurture it. Mr. Rothwell saw that I could share my experiences through humor. And then he suggested stand-up comedy. Trying to be you was exhausting. With the help of some teachers and my family and my own process, I found out I'm a much better me than I am a you."

After graduation, Beers reluctantly attended the Montana Youth Leadership Forum, a one-week leadership training program for kids with disabilities. But it was there that he found his table in the lunchroom—and where he figured out what he really wanted to do.

click to enlarge Michael Beers, center, is a comedian and disability rights activist who's aiming to launch a short bus tour with fellow comedians John Howard, left, and Tyler D. Nielsen. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Michael Beers, center, is a comedian and disability rights activist who's aiming to launch a short bus tour with fellow comedians John Howard, left, and Tyler D. Nielsen.

"For the first time, I was in the majority," says Beers. "It was like a drug. It was just wow. I never knew that being a person with a disability made me part of a history and a culture and a language. I didn't know about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], a piece of legislation that granted me civil rights when I was 8 years old. After that, it was all systems go. The rest of my life was going to be comedy and advocacy."

From there, he served on the National Task Force for the Employment of Adults with Disabilities Advisory Council and in 2003 became the youth transitions coordinator at Summit Independent Living, where he helps high school students with disabilities find success after graduation. Since 2013, he has also served on the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees.

Along the way, Beers established himself as one of the leading comics in the state. In his signature hood-up hoodie, baggy jeans and sneakers, he became more and more comfortable onstage, head tilted into the microphone cradled in that right hand.

"I grew up in a family where humor was important," he says. "It always made me feel better in the hospital growing up. For me, a well-timed dirty joke from my dad was way better than the get-well card with light shining through trees. There was healing in it."

In recent years, both youth programming for those with disabilities and the comedy scene in Missoula have developed significantly. Beers is at that intersection, often working behind the scenes and specifically at BASE, an all-abilities community space located in the Warehouse Mall on West Alder Street. The space, funded by Summit and grant money, has comedy and improv programming, coordinated with Homegrown Comedy founder John Howard, as well as art programming coordinated with Tyler D. Nielsen, founder of the art nonprofit A Paper Crane Company, which shares the space.

"The idea of BASE is a concept taken from tag on the playground," Beers says. "The rule is that you can't mess with me when I'm on base. You can take a breath. This is a place that is very accepting of everyone. But the other rule is that you can't stay there. You need to go back to the game—out into the world."

When funding is secured (the crew has a GoFundMe page), the short bus would be a sort of BASE-on-wheels, with Beers, Howard and Nielsen taking it on the road. The vision includes stops at schools for workshops, improv classes and educational stand-up, plus evening stand-up events for adults and maybe even some open mic sessions from the wheelchair lift, wherever the bus parks.

"This is the bus I grew up on," says Beers, "and now we want to drive it. While there'd certainly be a disability focus, the idea is ... everyone can identify with that feeling of isolation I had, whether it's for a day or a week or your entire life. Comedy was a bridge for me. It helped me find my voice and my opportunities. It gives you the opportunity to laugh with your peers. If everyone is laughing, you are just enjoying the moment together."

BASE hosts weekly improv shows every Thursday at 6:30 PM, and an open mic night on April 25 at 8 PM. You can support the short bus project by visiting gofundme.com/4awngyek.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "If everyone is laughing"

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