Disabled presenter ‘scares children’

Vitriolic comments and complaints to BBC spark angry backlash by charities and parents in support of CBeebies’ Cerrie Burnell

By Terri Judd
Tuesday 24 February 2009 01:00

Disparaging comments by adults about a children’s presenter have led to an angry backlash in support of Cerrie Burnell, the 29-year-old CBeebies host who was born missing the lower section of her right arm. One man said that he would stop his daughter from watching the BBC children’s channel because Burnell would give his child nightmares.

Parents even called the broadcaster to complain after Burnell, with Alex Winters, took over the channel’s popular Do and Discover slot and The Bedtime Hour programme last month, to complain about her disability.

And some of the vitriolic comments on the “Grown Up” section of the channel’s website were so nasty that they had to be removed.

“Is it just me, or does anyone else think the new woman presenter on CBeebies may scare the kids because of her disability?” wrote one adult on the CBeebies website. Other adults claimed that their children were asking difficult questions as a result. “I didn’t want to let my children watch the filler bits on The Bedtime Hour last night because I know it would have played on my eldest daughter’s mind and possibly caused sleep problems,” said one message. The BBC received nine other complaints by phone.

While charities reacted angrily to the criticism of the children’s presenter, calling the comments disturbing, other parents and carers labelled the remarks as disgraceful, writing in support of Burnell and setting up a “fight disability prejudice” page on the social networking site Facebook.

“I think that it is great that Cerrie is on CBeebies. She is an inspiration to children and we should not underestimate their ability to understand and accept that all of us have differences – some visible and some not,” wrote “Surfergirlboosmum”. Other websites were flooded with equally supportive comments. “I feel we should all post counter complaints to the BBC and I’m sure they will receive more complaints about the fact they have even considered accepting these complaints,” wrote Scott Tostevin on Facebook. “Its a disgrace that people still have such negative views against people who are ‘different’,” he added.

Burnell, who described her first television presenting role as a “dream job”, has also appeared in EastEnders and Holby City and has been feted for performances in the theatre while also worked as a teaching assistant at a special needs school in London. She also has a four-year-old child. “I think the negative comments from those few parents are indicative of a wider problem of disabled representation in the media as a whole, which is why it’s so important for there to be more disabled role models in every area of the media,” she said in response yesterday.

“The support that I’ve received … has been truly heartening. It’s brilliant that parents are able to use me as a way of talking about disability with their children and for children who are similarly disabled to see what really is possible in life and for their worlds to be represented in such a positive, high profile manner.”

Charities said that much still needed to be done to change perceptions in society. “In some way it is a pretty sad commentary on the way society is now and that both parents and children see few examples of disabled people. The sooner children are exposed to disability in mainstream education the better,” said Mark Shrimpton at Radar, the UK’s largest disability campaigning organisation. “She is a role model for other disabled people.”

Rosemary Bolinger, a trustee at Scope, a charity for people with cerebral palsy, said: “It is disturbing that some parents have reacted in this way … Unfortunately disabled people are generally invisible in the media and wider society.”

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