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By Simon Anderson (BASc – 3rd year)

I have had Tourette Syndrome for more than a decade and have a reasonable idea of what goes through other people’s minds when they discover this. Responses vary from sheepish sympathy to enthusiastic interrogations about what it’s like. Or there’s the other response – the indignant “No, you don’t. You’re not swearing!”

If this happens I tell them that Amy Poehler’s character, in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, is a Hollywood misrepresentation to entertain a general audience. But it makes me hesitant to introduce myself and add “…and I have Tourette Syndrome!”

The trouble is, unless you’re spying on me for long periods of time, you probably won’t realise that I have “something”. That’s why attending the Careers Centre seminar with guest speaker Dr Robert Silberstein was so interesting.

Dr Silberstein is a patent attorney and a lawyer specialising in intellectual property at Allens Arthur Robinson. He is also a physician – though he currently doesn’t practice; and he is wheelchair-bound. The neuromuscular condition which affects him makes his limbs weak and the mobility in his joints poor. He can walk with the aid of callipers, but falling is an issue, so he uses his wheelchair instead.

Of his days as a medical student, when convincing people that he could achieve his MBBS was difficult, he told us, “I’ve had to deal with narrow-mindedness often.” That aside, it was the patients who were most at ease with him.

“They were sometimes inquisitive and always accepting. They seemed very receptive to the fact that I had obviously been on their side of the bed before. That was something that enabled me to get a real connection with them,” Silberstein said.

During his studies, he realised he wanted to discover more about its relationship to law and to achieve something significant in what he calls a “litigious society.” This led him to a Masters of Law. It was then that he found his calling.

Dr Silberstein now works in intellectual property and deals with patents on new medical technologies that assist people with impaired motor function. He has even had a hand in a few of his own inventions; an all-terrain wheelchair being his favourite.

Photo of Simon Anderson

“My disability has never been a big issue for me,” he said. “I have never felt it should impinge on what I want to do and where I want to go.”

Before going to meet a new client, he tells them of his need for wheelchair access; otherwise he meets clients in his own building. He does not get embarrassed about such things himself, though he admits it would be a fun social experiment to turn up without mentioning his need for ramps and lifts.

Making sure employers know your requirements is very important, he says. He loves his nifty pair of dedicated remotely-controlled lifts that take him directly to his office floor without the need to press buttons or swipe a security pass. Regardless of the equipment and provisions in his workplace, he makes sure to share any loads when asking for help from colleagues.

“I wouldn’t really want my physical assistance needs to weigh overly on any individual. If I did, my disability would become an issue...and it’s just not one. Although I may need help 40 or 50 times a day, I ask around. If I asked you to help me do one or two things a day, you’re not going to notice; if I ask you 20 times, then you are.”

When reflecting on his achievements, Dr Silberstein agrees that it has been challenging – even if he doesn’t say so directly.

“It’s really important for people not to allow their perceptions of potential limitations their disability may give them; and more importantly the perceptions other people may have about limitations their disability may give them to impact on their career choice. Down the track you might realise that you’re in a situation that you don’t want to be in and you’ve gone too far. I think living with regret of that nature would be a very difficult thing to do.”

As I left campus that night I thought about what the future holds for me and other students at the seminar. It is unrealistic to say that having any sort of disability is not an issue. For the individual who has one, no matter how subtle or obvious, it is ever-present. I get extraordinarily self-conscious when my Tourette Syndrome is acting up; often refusing to believe friends when they tell me it’s less noticeable than in the past.

Now, however, just knowing that the University and workplace environments are conscious of such things is a real confidence-booster.

The Careers Centre at Jane Foss Russell Building, in conjunction with Disability Services, will be organising further seminars. For information email