Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Don't scare the children

Cerrie Burnell has hit the news today (eg BBC) because some parents have complained about her appearance on the BBC's childrens programming. Is she a filthy racist? A vulgarian unable to help herself effing and blinding every other word? If so - it's strictly on her own time. No, she has committed the sin of having less than two arms, sparking some complaints that she might scare children, a host of bilious comments on the BBC message boards and a mini-stir in the right wing press.

I've watched a bit of her performance and she seems perfectly capable of doing her job, which has been corroborated by parents who have to watch kids TV. Although when, in the clip, she screamed and started waving her stump at the camera shouting "No, no, don't let the monsters get you too! Run and hide! Just don't go under your bed - THAT'S WHERE THEY STORE ALL THE STOLEN ARMS!" I thought that was slightly misjudged, but probably acceptable in context.

Of course, those who complained have used the typical cowards excuse and blamed their children, saying they had to explain disability to them "before they were ready". How old do you have to be before your ready to have Dad shrug and go "yeah, she's missing an arm" and go back to his paper? Anyway kids are good at learning new things. It's part of what being a kid is all about - it's adults who find long ingrained prejudice harder to challenge, as this episode demonstrates.

Whilst the right seems to think her employment is some sort of demonstration of political correctness according to wikipedia she seems amply qualified. She is a mother who has appeared in Holby City, Grange Hill and East Enders as well as writing a play. Oh yeah, and her favourite games is twister. However, her 'achievement' of only having one arm appears to be most significant in most people's minds and has obscured the fact that she's clearly quite good at her job.

I'm not sure it is really some sort of ideological dogma to think that someone who was born with one arm is still a person capable of doing a good job is it? It's not like the BBC have done something radical like having a fat presenter or a French one. But then they'd never do that so we're safe.

As Carrie says this hoo ha is a demonstration of still existing bigotry and there are still barriers to break down. "It just goes to show how important it is to have positive disabled role models on CBeebies and television in general." Wishing disabled people away, hidden out of sight, is part of the problem that means that some of us are not able to understand the pretty basic proposition that having one less arm has no effect on your worth as a human being what so ever. The less "normal" we make disability the stupider society gets.

I worked for eight years with severely disabled people who had learning disabilities and mental health problems. When there was fear against this group of people it was almost always based on ignorance rather than justified concern.

When I worked on secure units we'd often have trainee nurses come to do placements and it was a regular occurrence for these students to be scared out of their wits when they first arrived confronted by sights they'd never been witness to before, one woman even hid in a back office for eight hours on her first day. However, by the time they finished their placement they were just as relaxed and understanding as everyone else. They'd learned about these "strange people" by experiencing them at first hand and their world was a more safe and secure one for it.
Gaining a rounded view of the world as early as possible is a good thing. Your kids will have more fear in their lives if you teach them idiocies like mildly disabled people should be shunned by society.

A media that screened out any "abnormalities" like black people, the disabled and those with funny religious beliefs is one that is doing a great disservice to the public. Not just because it would teach people in those groups that they are outsiders and not "normal" but also because it trains white, middle class, C of E people that they are not the pinnacle of society just through accident of birth. Like Cerrie, they have to earn their place and I guess it's frightening when you feel your privilege being threatened.

See also Weggis and the Daily Mash for humorous takes on the matter. Plus Adrian Windisch and the Liberal Conspiracy piece are well worth a read.


Adrian Windisch said...

Ive also wriiten about this http://greenreading.blogspot.com/2009/02/bbc-childrens-presenter-cerrie-burnell.html

weggis said...

The whole point here Jim is that Kids have NO preconceptions.

Until adults force theirs upon them.

Jim Jay said...

That's right - I'm firmly of the belief that bigotry is taught.

Green Gordon said...

Although funny religious beliefs are surely worthy of more comment and criticism than race ethnicity or disability.

Jim Jay said...

Depends on the circumstances I'd have thought. But more to the point exposure to different ideas and peoples is a worthwhile educational experience in itself, for kids and adults.

I personally wouldn't think it's acceptable to criticise someone for any of these things if it's incidental to their job - so a mormon who was a presenter of Blue Peter should be an unremarkable thing, unless they used it as a platform to evangelise...

Anonymous said...

I first saw this presenter a couple of weeks ago when watching tv with my 5 year old daughter-and I was delighted to see that she hadn't been kept out of presenting simply because of her disability. She is clearly very good at her job and it gave me the opportunity to explain to my daughter another facet of how people can be different on the outside-and that it doesn't matter. It saddens me that so many parents have found her presence so distressing with their claims of frightening their kids. Kids are pretty openminded. It's the parents who instill such bigotry and fear.