FACING DISABILITY ON TV
It is parents who can’t face disability on TV
Complaints that the children’s presenter Cerrie Burnell is ‘scaring children’ reveal an alarming prejudice towards disability … from adults
Nine official complaints have so far been lodged with the BBC – plus many more blog postings – about 29-year-old children’s television presenter Cerrie Burnell, who was born with only one hand. Parents have complained that they cannot let their children watch her because the sight will “possibly cause sleep problems”, that she is scaring toddlers, and that they are being forced to discuss the issue of disability with their offspring before they are ready.
Altogether, it makes you glad that the medieval witch-hunters weren’t internet-enabled. The comments of course reveal nothing about the children’s true feelings and everything about those of the adults involved. Young, CBeebies-age children do not have profound concerns about disability. I worked for several years, on and off, at a school for physically disabled children and it was never their able-bodied peers who were the problem when our paths crossed on school outings, but their parents, who kept them pinioned to their sides and made sure they turned their faces away. If a curious child ever did slip out of his mother’s vice-like grip and come over, he or she would ask a few unabashed questions about what the problem was, want to press buttons on a few wheelchairs, and accept quite happily the explanations offered. To a young child, it is just another element of a large and confusing world that they want to inquire about, no more fearsome or embarrassing than any other.
No, Burnell’s arm is likely only to give parents nightmares. It is they who do not want to confront disabilities, not now, not at teatime, not ever. To let your toddler be scared every day that Burnell has hurt herself rather than explain the truth is a failure of parenting, not an imposition by the BBC. And toddlers are frightened of lots of things. My two-year-old godson is currently terrified by trees (“Too scary! Too scary!”). His mother isn’t out felling all nearby arboreal horrors – she’s taking him on extra visits to the park.
So it should be here, though increasing exposure to presenters with disabilities is going to be tricky. I can only think of performer Mat Fraser, who appears occasionally on television, often presenting programmes about living with the shortened limbs caused by Thalidomide, and even more occasional screen appearances by the actor and standup comedian Francesca Martinez, who has cerebral palsy. Perhaps the most frequently seen is BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner , who has used a wheelchair since being shot while reporting from Riyadh five years ago.
But the strength of reaction to Burnell’s missing hand shows that she remains something of a pioneer. There is still a lot of unbroken sod to get through. Or a lot of unbroken sods to get through to.