Disability and diversity in the public space

One of today’s top stories has centred on children’s TV presenter, Cerrie Burnell. The Daily Mail ran an insidious, scaremongering feature about how she is supposedly frightening the young kids she presents to on CBeebies. Listening to Cerrie talk on the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 today, I was struck by her calm dignity in the face of some extraordinarily nasty remarks by parents. Responses on the Vine Show were also overwhelmingly in support of Burnell and her right to be a talented and empathetic TV presenter who just happens to have a malformed arm.

Last year, I was an enthusiastic viewer of Britain’s Missing Top Model, which set out to prove that disabled women could be models just as easily as their able-bodied counterparts. The contestants had a very diverse range of disabilities but all were depicted as real women who wanted to model and just happened to be disabled. The camera gaze never lingered pornographically on their particular disabilities but it did focus on just how hard these women had to fight to be treated equally in society. It was an inspiring series and the winner, Kelly Knox, was gorgeous, funny and smart. She also happened to have a missing forearm, just like Cerrie Burnell. Kelly was a deserving winner. She not only won a fashion photoshoot in Marie Claire but a leading model agency gave her a contract as they saw no reason why she could not work in what everyone knows is a very competitive and tough industry where you are judged on how you look.

Kelly was depicted as normal on BBC3 and attracted no adverse publicity (undoubtedly because it was a minority programme on a minority channel). Cerrie, likewise, has been depicted as normal by the BBC, which is fulfilling its remit of reflecting the diversity of our population. That remit includes employing the disabled as well as ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians. The children who watch Cerrie doing her job on CBeebies don’t see Cerrie as weird, abnormal or scary. How can they? Children are born without prejudice and accept whatever’s around them. They only learn prejudice from those who teach it to them. Those parents who claim in the Mail that Cerrie will send their kids to bed with nightmares are not talking about how their children really see Cerrie but displaying their own fears and prejudices.

And that’s exactly why we need Cerrie on TV and others like her. We need to see Britain’s diversity reflected back at us on our screens. The alternative is too awful to think about – a return to a medieval past where the different are locked away from sight or euthanised so only perfect humans can exist. It’s only 60 years since the last hideous experiment in deciding who was fit to be part of society was carried out. I’d like to think society has moved on since then and that the prejudiced minority will not be allowed to push this warm, talented women off our screens.

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5 thoughts on “Disability and diversity in the public space”

  1. Wonderful article, thank you… succinctly, cogently and coherently argued. Daily Mail Parents… get back behind your prejudiced curtains & leave the real world to real people!

  2. Thanks for the comments. I have a disability myself, at least in the legal sense – I don’t really feel disabled by it but it’s tiresome having to explain why I have a concessionary travel pass (because I’d be refused a driving licence) and sometimes I get pulled out by bus drivers because I;m not in chair and I’m wearing heels so they can’t quite figure out what’s “wrong” with me. How much harder it must be for Cerrie and so many others when I can at least pass as “normal” on the outside.

    If we were to return to the society of yesteryear, I’d be doubly doomed as an epileptic of Jewish background.

    Cerrie’s future on TV will be a marker of how far we have really progressed as a society.

  3. This is a great post and you are so right in your comment back. My ex partner has HIV and has similar issues viz the use of a disabled car parking badge… the times he’s been collared by traffic wardens!

  4. Thanks Ben. So sorry to hear of your ex-partner’s hassles with the Blue Badge. If you have a visible disability, because you’re in a wheelchair or are missing an arm, people are too embarrassed to look you in the eye and if it’s invisible you get so much hassle from people who think you can’t possibly be entitled to whatever because you look so normal! I feel for those with HIV too, because there is so much additional stigma, not to mention fear and ignorance about the realities of HIV.

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