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."
Limb Deficiency Groups React
Outrage over the initial parent reaction reverberated across the Atlantic, especially among child psychiatrists and parents of children with limb deficiencies.
"Parents ought to be able to talk about this with their kids," said Dr. Steven Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "It's the stuff that doesn't get addressed in this realm that more likely lead to nightmares."
"Kids are amazingly tolerant as long as you acknowledge the elephant in room," he told ABCNews.com. "Yes, [Burnell's] got one arm, but look what she can do. At least she's creating a dialogue.
Many people who are missing limbs choose not to wear prostheses, "as a matter of pride," said Schlozman, who has treated children with limb deficiencies.
"Put yourself in the mind of a kid," said Schlozman. "'My goodness,' they think, 'If my folks can't stomach a healthy and well-adjusted one-armed mother, then what will they think of the nasty feelings I have for my older sister when she gets the last cookie?' and so on."
Congenital limb deficiencies like Burnell's occur in about one out of every 1,000 births. The cause is unknown in about 32 percent of those cases, but genetic mutations, chromosomal abnormalities and vascular disruptions can cause an arm or leg to not develop, according to the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics.
Approximately 1.7 million people in the United States are living with limb loss, and another 185,000 have a limb amputation each year, according to the Amputee Coalition of America.
"Such outdated attitudes are demeaning and hurtful to people with disabilities and must not be tolerated," the coalition today said in a prepared release issued in response to the BBC controversy.
"Do the critics of Ms. Burnell believe that everyone with limb loss or a congenital limb absence -- including children who have lost their limbs to lawn mower accidents, people who have had amputations due to cancer and those who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan missing limbs -- are too scary to be seen in public? Would these complaining parents ask their nation's wounded warriors to hide from public view?"
In the United States, several children's shows, including "Maya and Miguel" and "Barney," have tackled the limb deficiency condition by including characters with only one arm. On "Barney," a boy named Andy advised children how to respond to other children who ask, "What happened to your arm?"
"Sesame Street" previously addressed disabilities like cerebral palsy and has included scenes with crutches and wheelchairs but not specifically limb deficiencies, according to a spokeswoman for the Sesame Street Workshop.
Without an Arm, He Can 'Do Anything'
Giuliano Lin was born with an arm similar to Burnell's, developed only to the mid-forearm. "It's like I have an extra tool," he told ABCNews.com. "Instead of having two hammers, I have a hammer and a wrench."
The 12-year-old is an expert fencer, and he swims, makes jewelry and knits with one hand and can play the guitar. "I often forget I don't have a hand," Giuliano said.
"He can do anything," said his mother, Sabina Berretta of Lexington, Mass. "The only thing he can't do is the monkey bars."
But as a child, he struggled with fitting in socially, and Berretta, a Boston psychiatrist, acknowledged, "We are scared about what we don't know."
"Despite our efforts to protect Giuliano, he has been, and still is, the object of blunt, hurtful, comments from young children," said Berretta, who practices at McLean Hospital in Boston. "They have stared at him, yelled out loud. 'Hey! Look! This kid is weird! He does not have a hand.' They threw sand at him because he is a 'monster,' grabbed his arm to look at it without asking and refused to be in the same room because he is 'scary.'"
But, she said, children were were openly told about Giuliano's condition and were able to ask questions, quickly forgot their differences.
Giuliano said he wished there were more television hosts like BBC's Burnell, who might teach children about differences rather than sending a negative message like, "Oh they look different and can't do what we can do. They're really bad and scary.
"I understand people are curious," he said. "But if they can look at it on TV, then they won't stare when they see someone on the street. It makes it a lot easier for us. Some of us have blue eyes, some have green; some have black hair, some are blond; some have two arms and some of us have one."
'I Have Never Hidden My Son's Legs'
Actress Bahar Soomekh was horrified when she learned of the criticism fired at Burnell. Her 3-year-old son, Ezra, was born with a malformed leg and one functioning finger. In order for the boy to have a better functioning prosthetic leg, doctors amputated the limb below the knee. They also transplanted the big toe to make a thumb, so he could utilize his left hand.
"The irony is I did the Academy-award winning 'Crash,' [a movie] about prejudices, and here it's happening at home for me," said the 33-year-old actress, who also appeared in "Mission Impossible III" and "Syriana." "I had to deal with it on the playground and at school every day. The beauty is that I have never hidden my son's legs. He wears shorts."
Ezra, who got his prosthetic leg at 10 months, was walking by 11 months -- way ahead of most of his peers -- and now plays soccer and basketball.
Soomekh undertands the power of role models like Burnell. When the television show, "Barney," had a girl without a hand, Ezra was delighted.
"It meant the world to my son," she said. "It was the most extraordinary thing. When school started the kids said Ezra's hand look the girl on Barney. It's all about familiarity."
Filmmaker Maggie Doben agrees. Her 2008 documentary, "Labeled Disabled" explores how to help children understand physical disabilities. She said Burnell should have introduced herself to her young viewers.
"If she had held up her arm and said, 'You probably have noticed that I have one hand and this is how come," Doben told ABCNews.com. "Within 45 seconds, kids would have moved on."
"Kids have a lot of questions and when they are answered honestly, that's all they need," she said. "When they are left mysterious, that make up answers on their own and that's what is scary."
As for Burnell, Soomekh said parents can help their children by applauding her talent. "Look at how amazing she is. She can hold a book and turn the pages without a hand."
Burnell's supporters seem to agree and flooded the CBeebies message boards this week with praise for her work.
"I think it is great," wrote "Suzz" of Greater Manchester. "TV needs to represent everyone. My toddler was amazed that she can do normal things with her 'shorter.'"
Others said their preschool children had faithfully watched the show and "never batted an eyelid."
"Education is so important for bringing up smart adults who know how to interact with each other in the world," said Amanda Moment, who was born with one hand and mentors children with limb deficiencies as part of her work with the organization Helping Hands.
"All of my life, children have asked me what happened, and it's really a matter of simple education," she told ABCNews.com "They satisfy themselves that it doesn't hurt and it's not scary, then they go on with their lives."