When the BBC hired a pretty young actress to co-host a daily program for toddlers, it never expected viewers to complain that the young woman might give their children nightmares.
“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,” wrote one viewer in an e-mail to the British television network after seeing Cerrie Burnell play games and read children’s stories.
The viewer’s problem? Burnell was born with an incomplete right arm that ends in a stump below her elbow.
According to a BBC report, most viewers have been supportive of Burnell, who took over a daily slot on the BBC’s children’s network, CBeebies, at the beginning of February with Alex Winters. But a handful have written to the station complaining about her disability. Some say she may frighten the children. Others accuse the network of going overboard in the interests of diversity. Some say they don’t want to have to address such issues with very young children.
Burnell, who has a 4-month-old daughter, seems unfazed by the controversy. “Children come up to me in the street every day and say 'What's that?' I wouldn't say they're frightened but certainly they're inquisitive,” she told BBC magazine. "I would always take the time to explain to a child. All they want is an explanation. They want to know 'What's that?' and 'What's happened?' and 'Why are you different?' And then they will move on."
Barbara Otto, the executive director of Health & Disability Advocates, a national American organization that lobbies, said in a phone interview that she would be surprised if a person like Burnell caused a similar reaction in the United States.
The Americans with Disabilities Education Act has mainstreamed as many disabled children as possible into regular schools. “We have community inclusion of people with disabilities,” she said. “Kids are going to school with people with different abilities. In the United States, this would be unheard of.”
In England, experts have noted that small children do not normally have difficulty dealing with people who are different. Where adults may turn their heads away from someone in a wheelchair, toddlers will walk right up to them and ask them about their chair. They don’t ask what’s wrong, but rather what it is.
“They acknowledge it, they don’t look away,” Otto said of small children. “They ask what happened, not out of horror or disgust or fear. The want to know what happened. A responsible adult tells them: ‘Here’s what the situation is.’”
Are adults the problem?
England has non-discrimination laws similar to those in America. The problem isn’t with kids but with adults, Sir Bert Massie of Great Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission told the BBC.
"I think what's happening is a number of adults do have prejudices, do have very negative views about disabled people, and instead of admitting the views are their own, they're projecting them on to their children and saying the children are doing this,” he is quoted as saying.
Otto agreed. “It’s the adults,” she said, noting that Baby Boomers were raised in an era when the disabled were excluded from mainstream society. “People with disabilities were ‘the others.’ They were went away to live in institutions. A lot of that changed starting in the 1970s and 80s. It’s an old-fashioned notion.”
Otto said the reaction to Burnell is symptomatic of a larger issue some parents today are trying to cope with.
“This situation really speaks to an issue we’re seeing in parenting today,” Otto said. “Given the challenges of being a parent and the inability to control what our kids are exposed to, some parents are having a real drastic reaction. Maybe this is a part of it. Some people strive to shelter their children as long as they can. I suppose you see that everywhere. You see people home-school their kids because they don’t want them in an environment where they can’t control what they’re doing every minute of the day.”
Although the target of complaints, Burnell did not attempt to tell parents how to raise their children. “I'd never comment on anyone's parenting or the time for them to have a discussion with their child about disabilities,” she told the BBC. "It's a totally personal thing and people have to do it when they feel comfortable to do it. But I would just hope that, I guess, me being on CBeebies would present an opportunity for them to do that in the comfort of their own home."