Tourette’s on the Job

Tourette’s on the job: Hidden lives (1/6) Monday 2 April: 21.00–22.00

Five’s human interest documentary strand returns for a third series of surprising real life stories. The six hour-long programmes promise more incredible tales from around the world, focusing on unusual and sometimes alarming personal stories. In tonight’s programme, we meet sufferers of Tourette’s syndrome who have overcome the disability to succeed in the workplace.

Tourette’s syndrome is a diverse condition that can manifest itself in many ways. “It ranges from a couple of mild tics to extreme ‘coprolalia’, which is uttering obscenities,” explains neuroscientist Professor Peter Hollenbeck. Only between ten and 15 percent of Tourette’s sufferers have such a condition; London-born Andrew Joannou is one of these few. He was diagnosed at 13 as having a wide range of conditions associated with Tourette’s, such as coprolalia, the urge to make obscene gestures, and a range of involuntary tics. “I’ve had pretty much everything,” he says.

Throughout his early adult life, Andrew found it difficult to gain employment, was often depressed and regularly considered suicide. However, his life changed when he attended a Tourette’s conference in America and met his future wife, Amy, with whom he has since had two children. “When we were dating, [Andrew] went to kiss me on the bridge of my nose, and had one of his ‘teeth tics’ and broke my nose,” laughs Amy. “In the same evening, he threw hot tea in my face.”

After moving to America, Andrew managed to get a job in the postal service where he has worked for the last few years. He has made firm friends in the depot, where everyone understands and sympathises with his condition. His boss, Bobby Johanson, remembers the furore Andrew caused when he first entered the multi-cultural company’s staff canteen: “He said the ‘N-word’ and nearly caused a riot. Now it’s not a major issue anymore – he doesn’t say it nearly as much.” Andrew has progressed in his job and is now responsible for training new staff, and is enjoying a happy and productive life.

Although he does not suffer from coprolalia, American Brad Cohen has had to overcome Tourette’s to become a successful teacher and author. Brad left teacher training college with an impeccable CV, but his first 24 interviews ended in rejection. He is sure that his failure was due to the extreme physical and vocal tics he has displayed since childhood. Instead of allowing the condition to defeat him, however, Brad used the discrimination he suffered to harden his resolve.

Brad was finally given his chance to shine at an elementary school in Atlanta by a more enlightened head teacher – and shine he did, soon winning the award of Teacher of the Year in the whole state of Georgia. He has since appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s chat show and written a successful book about his story. Tonight’s programme follows Brad as he travels to London as an ambassador for Tourette’s, educating children in the truth of his condition. “I was expecting a man whose Tourette’s owned him, who was overwhelmed by physical and verbal tics,” says onlooking teacher Cassie Smith. “When he started teaching he was a different person.”

The stories of Andrew and Brad show that many of the difficulties encountered by Tourette’s sufferers in the workplace lie not with the sufferers themselves, but with those who cannot understand or accept the condition. “It’s one of many examples in society when a little bit of tolerance and understanding goes a long way,” says Professor Hollenbeck.

Tonight’s programme also explores the stories of Gillian, a highly successful advertising executive who has used her Tourette’s to her advantage, and entrepreneur Noel, a Tourette’s sufferer who was not diagnosed until he was 40 but is now a millionaire who runs his own comedy club.

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