TV Host With One Arm Ignites Protests
Limb deficiency advocates clash with parents who say TV host frightens children.
Feb. 24, 2009 — -- When a handful of parents complained that the host of a British children's television show was scaring young viewers, comments exploded on Internet message boards -- some so vicious they had to be removed.
Cerrie Burnell, 29, who was born with one arm, sparked heated message board debate after she was hired a month ago to appear on CBeebies, the BBC's digital children's channel.
One woman who called herself "Chiara's mum," wrote, "My daughter won't watch with the new presenters. She is only 2 and notices the lady's arm has gone. She thinks she is hurt every day."
One father said the show would give his daughter nightmares, and others said their children were too young to cope or even that the BBC was too aggressive in its policy to hire "minorities" to meet quotas.
Since the initial comments appeared, advocacy groups and parents of those born with "limb deficiencies" have seized on the story as a teachable moment.
"I find comments from complaining parents very hurtful," said Julie Detheridge of Coventry, whose 9-year-old son who was born without a right hand.
"Should my son be kept locked away in case he frightens someone?" she asked. "He is no less of a person just because he was born with part of his hand missing."
And today, commenters on the CBeebies Web site were overwhelmingly dismissive of what they called a "handful" of parents who were uncomfortable with Burnell's disability, likening their reaction to racial prejudice.
Burnell, who has a 4-month-old daughter and works as a teaching assistant at a special needs school, called the host's critics "small-minded."
"It can only be a good thing that parents are using me as a chance to talk disability with their children," Burnell told ABCNews.com. "It just goes to show how important it is to have positive disabled role models on CBeebies and television in general."
She acknowledged in an interview with BBC Breakfast Television today that a missing limb can be initially scary.
"Kids come up to me on the street every day, and go," she said, gasping, "what is that? And I would say they were frightened, but I'd say certainly, they were inquisitive, they want to know why it's different, and I think that's very honest, and it's real, it's the truth."
She said all children want is an explanation. "They just want to know why we're different, what [has] happened, and two minutes later, they would have moved on."
Advocacy groups in Britain chimed in to support Burnell and chastised the British tabloids for using headlines like "One-armed TV presenter scares the children," rather than emphasizing what they call discriminatory attitudes and "bullying tactics."
"Having an upper limb deficiency does not make someone disabled, it just makes them a person with a difference, and as such they should have open to them all the same career prospects as anyone else," said Sue Stokes, the national coordinator for the British organization Reach: The Association for Children With Hand or Arm Deficiency.
"We are completely behind Cerrie and hope she can stay strong and not let these few narrow-minded bullies get to her," said Stokes, who has a 22-year-old daughter with a missing hand.
The BBC is also standing behind Burnell. "It's a big task to entertain millions of children every day," said Michael Carrington, controller of CBeebies. "Cerrie is warm and natural and we think that in time all mums and dads and children will love her as much as we do."