Bill Rabe, Special Olympian, performs magic with his dad, Karl Rabe, and – no surprise to Uncle John Rabe – steals the show.

The movie embedded below is one of the funniest, heartwarming, and entertaining movies I’ve seen in years. It happens to feature my brother Karl and his son, Bill, an intellectually disabled 20-year-old with limited speech. Among other talents, Karl is a magician, so when he was asked to perform at a benefit show for athletes with disabilities, he wanted to include Bill, who is a Special Olympian.

Simply put, Bill kills.

After watching the video, I asked Karl if I could share it with you, knowing that it could touch a lot of people. He agreed immediately, and offered some of the backstory:

I began researching this act almost 6 months ago. I posted on some magic blogs to see if there were any already existing routines that would fit the story I wanted. Unfortunately there weren’t, so I wrote this pretty much from scratch. I did get useful input from a variety of magicians, including one known for having one of the best comedy linking ring routines. His routine is a comic masterpiece, but the angle is that the magician thinks the assistant is following along and doing all the tricks, when in fact they aren’t. I wanted something where I was clearly failing and Bill was doing all the magic.

I worked through the moves myself until I had it close, and then started practicing with Bill about 3 weeks prior to the show. We refined the act as we practiced – usually twice a day with Bill and a couple of times, most days, myself.

After the first practice I wondered if Bill would be able to get it. I had simplified the magic he had to do, but he still had a lot of specific actions to perform on cue. His dexterity limited what he could do with the rings. The most difficult thing for him to get was the difference between what I call action cues and dialog cues. Action cues he had to perform an action when I did or said something but not directed specifically to him (I step on the rings and he gets the hacksaw out). Dialog cues he had to wait for me to tell him to do something and then he does it (get a bigger wand). At first he would have trouble learning the action cues and then later as he learned those, he would jump the gun and do something for a dialog cue before I even asked him to do whatever it was. I realized the whole idea of acting and staged dialog is kind of abstract. Shouldn’t I be pleased that he brought me the wand without me having had to ask for it?

Anyway, he did a fabulous job and the audience loved it. To show you how hard the concept is to grasp for him, my favorite part of the video is how he tries to shush the audience when they laugh loudly, or he gives them the cut-off sign with his hand across his neck.

There were some “adaptive” aspects of the routine to accommodate Bill's disability. I built a cardboard liner for the magic case and used more cardboard to compartmentalize all the props so each one was easy to grab without any fumbling. Some things had to be oriented correctly and the holders I built in the case ensured they could only be pulled out the correct way. To produce the big wand at the end it was important that he move the case to the front of the stage and set it down in a particular orientation. A smiley face inside the case smiled at him if it was in the correct position -- otherwise the smiley face would be upside down.

Karl and his wife Patty, by the way, do a ton of work with Intentional Communities of Washtenaw, “a group of parents that want to provide housing and community options for adults with disabilities, based on their individual strengths and gifts, as well as their needs and personal preferences. To help address the lack of services available after high school, these parents united to spearhead a new model that would transition individuals with disabilities to a more independent, higher quality life.”

Check out John's weekly show Off-Ramp!

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