Michael Beers

“You came out of high school with the same degree as everybody else, but you did it in such a different way and have such an ability to adapt.”

– Michael Beers

Kelsey Wardwell/Missoulian

Michael Beers wants teens to have BALLS – to have confidence, a swagger, to assert themselves.

Beers, transitions coordinator at Summit Independent Living Center, wants men and women both to acquire those traits.

“I know full well most of the women in my life have bigger balls than I do. And my sisters were the first to tell me that,” said Beers, also a comedian.

A decade ago, Beers and a friend were asked to teach a class to high-school students, and they wanted to get out of the responsibility. Their tactic? They chose BALLS as the acronym for Building Advocacy and Learning Leadership Skills.

“We called the class BALLS thinking there was no way anyone would ever let us into a school with a class called BALLS,” Beers said.

Instead, the class flourished, Beers became a role model, and his work with teenagers is known across the country. Joel Peden, at Summit, said Beers is a leader and advocate for high-school students, and he has used his own success as a comedian to encourage young people to reach their goals.

“He spends countless hours in Missoula County high schools reaching out to students and teaching them how to embrace their disability and become their own best advocate,” Peden said. “He is recognized nationally within the disability circles as an expert on working with young people.”

One of the biggest challenges is busting the myths of disabilities, Beers said. One symbol in particular perpetuates the untruth that disabilities mostly come in the form of people using canes or wheelchairs.

“The symbol for a disability is a bald white dude in a wheelchair. That tells you where to park, that tells you where to pee,” Beers said.

In reality, though, most disabilities aren’t visible, and society isn’t adept at accommodating invisible ones, he said. For instance, a student who asks to put on headphones and listen to music while taking a test is likely to get a knee-jerk “no” from an educational institution.

“They might be the smartest person in the class, but if their anxiety is triggered because of a large group, their mind is going to be an Etch-a-Sketch. It’s just going to go blank,” Beers said.

His role? Teaching people to advocate for themselves and their needs – and view their disability as an asset.

“You look at the world like no one else does. Especially in this day and age, that’s a marketable skill,” said Beers, also a member of the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees. “You came out of high school with the same degree as everybody else, but you did it in such a different way and have such an ability to adapt.”

One of his jobs is to help students fill their calendars the day after they graduate – and every day after – so they have a social structure and academic structure in place. In elementary school and high school, students have a support team helping them out.

“Once you graduate, you’re not in special ed, which is OK because there’s not that stigma attached. But you still need that support,” Beers said.

As a role model, Beers said he works hard to “never say no.” “I don’t know you well enough to say ‘no.’”

Once, a disabled student announced he wanted to be a NASCAR driver, and it was clear the teen wasn’t even likely to get a driver’s license. Other people in the classroom started rolling their eyes, but Beers said one teacher, Mary Olson, pressed the young man with questions.

“What do you like about NASCAR? Is it the speed? Is it driving?”

No, he said.

“The noise?”

Not really, he said.

Soon, the instructor put her finger on the attraction, Beers said: “Within three questions – I remember sitting back and watching this – she found out it was the paint on the cars and the graphics and the bright colors, and that’s what got him really excited. He wanted to work on the cars and be part of making the cars look like they do, so that fall, we set him up with mentoring at Blue Ribbon Auto Body.”

With just a little bit of time, they were able to say “yes.”

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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Reporter for the Missoulian