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Do disabled people work in forensics like in Silent Witness?

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 11:39 UK time, Thursday, 10 January 2013

Liz Carr as Clarissa Mullery with her working partner Jack Hodgson.

Clarissa Mullery with Lyell Centre colleague Jack Hodgson

A new regular disabled character appears on Silent Witness from this Friday.

The long-running BBC One crime drama follows four forensic experts as they attempt to uncover the truth behind suspicious deaths.

Wheelchair user Clarissa Mullery, whose arms and hands are also affected by her impairment, will join as a forensic lab scientist at the Lyell Centre from the second episode of this series. But are there disabled people doing this kind of fascinating job in real life?

In fiction, disability is no barrier to working in forensics.

Clarissa Mullery is preceded on television by CSI's coroner Dr Robbins, played by double amputee Robert David Hall. And in books, by Jeffery Deaver's forensic consultant Lincoln Rhyme, who is quadriplegic.

Rhyme gained his expertise prior to becoming disabled; the field work and other physical aspects of his job are now carried out by a partner. Dr Robbins' physical impairment is rarely referenced in CSI and has no bearing on his work.

Screen writer Tim Prager had been keen to create a visibly disabled character for prime time as he is father of a young man with cerebral palsy. Silent Witness is the vehicle in which it eventually worked out.

Tim has met people with a range of disabilities working in labs but never specifically a forensic scientist. He says: "If you don't know of someone who does a job, does that mean that they can't?"

Tim believes that limiting horizons is the greatest outrage and that it happens because most people don't have an experience of success around disability.

"My son has faced loads of people telling him things he can and can't do. At an early age, it was 'You can't be in a mainstream school'. Then 'You'll never be successful', 'This is way too hard for you' and later on it was 'You really need to moderate your ambition for university'. Well, I've Just dropped him off for his second term at Oxford."

Due to the high level of sensitivity in this line of work, firms providing forensics services are not keen to single out individual staff members for interview. Though we've heard that disabled forensic scientists exist in a lab somewhere, we haven't been able to speak with them at time of writing.

Clarissa is played by actress and comedian Liz Carr, who also co-hosts Ouch's monthly talk show. She explains what her character's job involves:

"My character checks DNA and investigates physical evidence and facts to help when putting a case together. In the series, I've examined spent shell casings from bullets, maggots and insect larvae. From checking info on a computer, analysing photo evidence and looking at actual evidence under a microscope, with chemicals and on databases, her job has loads of different elements."

Liz and the team got expert forensic advice on the activities she'd need to carry out in the show and then checked whether she could physically manage them all to maintain authenticity.

"The only thing I couldn't do," says Liz, "was go into the cutting room where an autopsy was taking place. It was a sealed environment and my chair couldn't wear scrubs or be sufficiently clean to go inside."

working on Silent Witness has left Liz quite confident that a physically disabled person could do the job of a forensic scientist.

"Perhaps the main problem," she adds, "would be the height of the work surfaces in a lab. Through the magic of TV, they're often raised and lowered to get the best shots and to enable me to reach them but in reality, their positioning might be an obstruction however it's nothing that can't be sorted with a bit of imagination and some creative carpentry.

"I hope disabled people watch the show and think they can either be an actor in a drama or work in forensics. Now all we need is for schools and university courses to be accessible and for employers to see these possibilities."

• The new series of Silent Witness starts on BBC One and BBC One HD tonight. Clarissa Mullery can be seen from part two which airs Friday at 9pm.

• Read Damon's interview with Liz Carr, published shortly after her role as Clarissa Mullery was revealed.

• Actor David Caves, who plays Clarissa's working partner Jack Hodgson, writes about his audition for the BBC's TV blog


  • Comment number 1.

    well I am fully blind and since loosing my sight I have qualified as a forensic accountant and have become successful in the field. only barrier I came up against was other peoples attitudes where you develop a very thick skin.


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