by Laurence Clark
BBC Ouch 27th January 2007
Laurence Clark relates his lifelong struggle to avoid becoming a computer geek and how he has exploited his title for all it is worth…
Funnily enough, my career advisor at special school never suggested stand-up comedian as a potential job. Their advice was a career in IT; the reasons being that I could earn good money and never encounter any wheelchair access problems by working entirely from home.
I feel that, as far as jobs for disabled people go, computing has become the new basket weaving! In 1944 the Disabled Persons Employment Act designated various menial professions to disabled workers – jobs like car park attendant and lift operator. It seems to me that, sixty years later, the only difference nowadays is that we’re pushing the buttons on a computer keyboard instead of the inside of a lift.
Fair enough. If computing is what floats your boat then by all means go for it, but, to me, it has always been like another form of social exclusion. At university I became more and more bored as my gregarious personality became trapped inside the body of a computer scientist. I’d sit in front of a keyboard all day, longing for a bit of chat with my fellow students. However on the rare occasions when I did manage to strike up a conversation, it usually revolved around… you guessed it… computers.
On the verge of a breakdown, I eventually did what many other socially repressed men have done and left it all behind me in order to try to become a stand-up comedian.
My hard-earned Ph.D. in Computer Science is now pretty useless in my current line of work. But so many people make negative assumptions about how intelligent I am because of my speech impairment that it’s irresistible not to use my title to mess with their perceptions. I still make some people call me doctor, just for the sheer hell of it really. Mostly these are people I dislike, you know: Social Workers, GPs, Occupational Therapists . . . it really pisses them off.
Sometimes the academic status thing goes to my head and I get this urge to push through a crowd of people shouting “let me past, I’m a doctor!” Little would they know that, with my qualifications, the best I could produce in an emergency would be a webpage like this one.
My title also rather confuses flight attendants if I use it when travelling by plane. You see, before take-off they have to check the aircraft for the whereabouts of both disabled passengers (in case we need assistance) and doctors (in case of a medical emergency). I always get confused looks from them as they try to work out whether one person could fit both categories.
I have to be equally careful though not to reveal to people that I’m a stand-up comedian, since I also sometimes do disability equality training and consultancy. Organisations are all too happy to have a ‘doctor’ training their staff but rarely does the idea of a comic instill them with confidence.
Whilst working at the Guildford Festival a couple of years ago, some friends persuaded me to visit a palm reader. I’m normally not one for this sort of thing but on this occasion I decided to put my scepticism to one side and give it a chance.
Patronisingly refusing to let me pay her, the clairvoyant studied my palm intensely for a few minutes, tracing the various lines with her index finger. Then she looked me straight in the eye and declared: “you may be handicapped, but, if you really, really work hard, and you are lucky, then one day you might get a job with computers.”
This was her idea of giving me something to hope for! Could there be any more conclusive proof that IT has become the stereotypical profession for disabled people? What a rip-off – for once I felt alright about someone refusing to take my money because I’m disabled!
Despite all of this, my wish eventually did come true. I haven’t done computer programming for about 7 years, and have forgotten so much that I probably couldn’t do it nowadays even if I wanted to. Instead my work partly involves writing this column, sat at home… by myself… in front of a computer keyboard…
Mmm – maybe things haven’t changed for me as much as I’d thought!