Cerrie Burnell: Maybe She’s Just the Best Person for the Job?

Laurie and Debbie say:

The Internet and the newspapers are buzzing with the story of Cerrie Burnell, established actress now co-hosting the BBC young children’s channel, CBeebies.

upper body shot of Cerrie Burnell showing her shortened arm

No one is complaining about her work, her acting ability, her manner with children, or how she shows up on TV. She sounds like a perfect host for a children’s channel.

So why is she news? Because she was born with one shortened arm.

Having a shortened arm can be described as a disability (because of all the things that are designed for two-handed people) and/or can be labeled as a disfigurement (because of exactly the responses she’s getting). In this story, disfigurement is the issue–no one is saying that Burnell can’t do the job because of her arm, or that she’s not good at it because of her arm. The people who want her off the show are saying they don’t want (their children) to see it, which very frequently means they don’t want to see it themselves. Since toddlers don’t post a lot of blog comments, we’re not getting a lot of response from the core audience. But everyone who has ever made anything for young children knows that the money, attention, time, and prioritizing all come from the parents, and the parents have a lot to say about Burnell’s appearance.

“There’s a time and place for showing kids all the “differences” that people can have, but nine in the morning in front of 2 year olds is NOT the place! Little overboard on the need for political correctness, perhaps?” says one father.

One point he’s missing is that Burnell’s visibility has the potential to make his kid see a one-armed woman as ordinary, part of life as she knows it. The more kids see, get accustomed to, ask questions about, and interact with, the bigger their world gets.

He’s not the only commenter to use the phrase “politically correct” (a phrase which, to put it mildly, neither of us has much patience with). In this case, however, using that phrase implies a particularly noxious position–i.e., that Burnell was chosen only or at least primarily because she has one arm. The vision is of BBC executives sitting in a smoke-filled room somewhere saying, “Hmmm. Let’s see what young children need. I know! They need to see people with disabilities! Let’s hire a disabled person!”

Somehow, this doesn’t seem too probable. Far more likely is that Burnell was one of the top choices for the job and the BBC executives had a long, difficult internal negotiation that sounded a lot like the arguments going on in the comments section of the CBeebies website: some of them thought it would be good for kids to see her arm, some of them thought it was too disturbing, and some of them thought that maybe the choice should be made based on her personality, her talent, her voice, her manner with children, and whatever other criteria they used to pick the other finalists.

And in that negotiation, somehow Burnell got the job, which shifted the discussion into a wider forum. This also allows people with direct experience to weigh in:

My 3-year-old daughter has a congenital upper-limb deficiency just like Cerrie’s. It’s there at nine in the morning, it’s also there at pre-school, it’s there at the supermarket and it’s there when we go on holiday. Some people stare, some people ask questions and many other people just don’t notice.

We are bringing our daughter up to believe that she can be anything and do anything that she sets her mind to. Not because we are politically correct but because she IS capable of anything and everything. The sheer excitement and delight on her face when she saw Cerrie’s little arm was priceless and just reinforced everything that we have taught her.

What Burnell’s detractors are really saying is that regardless of how good she is, regardless of whether or not most kids like her, regardless of anything except nine inches or so of missing flesh, she shouldn’t have her job. That’s not about political correctness, that’s about civil rights.

What should the BBC executives have said to Burnell? “Sorry, dear, we’d love to hire you, but you don’t have two arms?”

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for being first with the pointer.

15 thoughts on “Cerrie Burnell: Maybe She’s Just the Best Person for the Job?

  1. Yes, this is a civil rights issue, but what struck me was the narcissism of these parents. When I was young, and encountered disabled people, my parents assumed that seeing different types of people was part of life, that I better get used to it, and to make sure MY behavior was hospitable and correct (“don’t stare, Linda, it’s not polite”). Are disabled people supposed to disappear until their darlings can handle it better? Or should parents sit down and tell their kids, with no big fanfare, that people are all different, and they need to deal? The world won’t stop turning for their kids, and they need to get over it.

  2. Right–they didn’t hire her *because* she has 1.5 arms, but these people think she shouldn’t be hired *because* she has 1.5 arms. Good for her to make it past everyone on that level of thinking. And if a 3 year old can’t stomach it, they really really do need to see it. Even for myself, it would be that much easier to me to think nothing of it if differently-abled people were allowed to be more visible.

  3. This was almost exactly my own mother’s disability–I guess I carry the gene for it, too.

    This is why she was not allowed to go on the Grand Ole Opry–it had a hugely negative impact on her (the exclusion, I mean).

    For this reason, I can’t stand to read the shit they are saying. I just can’t read it.

  4. Apropos the effects on children of seeing “others:”

    Before my experience as a teacher, I passively accepted the presence of special ed classes in schools as a generic good thing. Now I’m a passionate supporter, not just for the good it does for the special ed kids, but for the good it does for the “regular” kids.

    My clearest example is an incident in a middle school. I turned around and discovered a young girl attacking a young man. As I moved in to break it up, I realized she was berating him for teasing and bullying a special ed boy who was mainstreamed into my math class (doing well at it, I might add).

    When I say ‘berate’ I mean screaming and serious blows. I literally had to pull her off him, telling her I would take care of it, but if she didn’t stop, I’d have to report her too.

    She is no angel – she’d been suspended several times for disruptive behavior – and was one of several problematic students in that class. But the nice part of the story is that the beaten bully was the exception, not her.

    In my experience, kids from Oakland’s tough streets were almost unfailing kind and accepting towards the special ed kids. Not always verbally, but they weren’t verbally kind to each other. But boys who would swell with pride at being called ‘thugs’ or ‘pimps’ objected vociferously to being called a bully.

    I am convinced that a major piece is that they’d been in school with the ‘special’ kids since kindergarten. I certainly don’t think my own generation of students would have done as well.

    “Disturbing” children by exposing them to difference doesn’t hurt them – it makes them bigger.

  5. How great is it that children will be able to see a positive role model like Ms. Burnell! Commercial TV needs more people of her caliber, talent and with her personality. How gracious of her to share her ABILITY with the children and with us. So some people have had to have honest discussions about the differences in society and reality – how is this a bad thing?

  6. great blog going to post it on the group. a lot of us feel a bit narked that in the main the press are reporting parents views as anti Cerrie – the link i have given here is just to illustrate that in a few days since the press caught wind of this, we have collected together a staggering 51,000 members to the group supporting Cerrie’s appointment to CBeebies.

    The real news is – the public is on her side, and if parental reports are anything to go by, so are our kids.


  7. My three-year-old is asleep, but if I showed her the picture of Cerrie Burnell, she might (or might not) ask “what happened to her arm?” or something like that. And I would explain, and she would say “oh,” and that would be that.

    My own reaction? I was charmed by the expression on her face well before I even noticed the arm.

  8. The main problem is that these parents do not want to, or know how to, discuss disabilities or disfigurements with their children. Many find it easier to just avoid the topic than to talk to their children openly and honestly, which is a shame because children aren’t looking for in-depth answers, usually just a simple explanation of “some people are just born like that” is enough.

    Children are very open minded and accept change and differences in their stride, but if they observe a parent reacting in a negative way to disabilities or disfigurements, then they pick up on this and consider that reaction to be the correct one.

    I am a support worker – I work with adults with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, I take my 4 year old son in to see them frequently and I talk very openly with him about disabilities at a level he can understand.
    for example – he asked about the wheelchairs, I explained that not everyone can do everything, and that their legs don’t work, so they need to use wheelchairs to get around – he thought for a moment and said “like I can’t touch the roof (ceiling) because I’m not tall enough so i’d have to stand on something?” a bit abstract but he understood in his own way. As as I said above, a simple answer – and he was happy with that.

    He now asks almost weekly to go in to mummy’s work, my work has a sensory room – he thinks the people I help look after are just about THE luckiest people alive! I’m so pleased that he has such a positive view of people with disabilities!

    My son hasn’t even made comment about Cerrie’s lack of lower arm, I’m not sure he’s even noticed to be honest, but if he were ever to ask -the answer would be quite simple: we are all different, isn’t it lovely!

  9. Laurie,

    Your comment reminded me of something a friend with and autistic son told me.. There’s a woman( in the Pacific North West I think), who does workshops in regular classes that have autistic kids in them. She explains what makes autistic kids comfortable and what’s hard for them. Apparently it makes a huge difference in how smoothly things for the autistic kids and obviously does the other kids a lot of good as well. Sorry I’m a little light on details.

  10. Hi, dropped into your site via google. My personal view is this just highlights the utter ignorance of the parents. Ignorance in the sense that they are obviously disturbed by the sight of someone who isn’t “normal”, also the utter gormless and hopeless parenting skills being displayed.

    Surely it isn’t difficult just to take a moment to offer an explaination and take the oportunity to encourage your child to see the person and not the disability? I do dispair that the emphasis is being put on the presenter, rather than the people who are complaining.

    Just for the record, no I don’t have a disability and yes I do have children.

  11. Jumping on about 5 months my 4yr old, for the first time today, said “Eh? Where’s her hand?” – in a genuinely curious way.

    So clearly kids haven’t been scared (or scarred!) else it wouldn’t have taken my lad so long to notice! As far as I’m concerned she’s a great presenter :D


  12. OH my goodness!! You people are fantastic!! I totally agree with everything that has been said. Children are not born with prejudice, they are taught it by their nearest and dearest. I am a parent of two children (one with Asperger’s) and believe children should see the diverse world we live in. It is parents like those who are complaining that make the person have the disability!! I think we should see more disabled presenters on TV. Thank you BBC.

  13. 13 comments all bending over backwards to be politically correct, all not saying what they really think.

    Why are the ugly people not presenting? Because nobody wants to see the ugly people. Is being ugly a disability? Probably. An awful lot of kids and parents are just going to change the channel when they see the disabled presenter.

    However, you have got to be very brave (or very stupid) to write in and complain about it. These parents who have complained have been berated by the press, yet a parent’s job is to protect their young children from the harsh realities of life. Should they force their kids to watch this channel because of Cerrie’s arm?

    Angie says “we should see more disabled presenters on TV”. Total rubbish. The public only want to see the beautiful perfect people, and aspire to be like them.

  14. @David Clark — Exactly what evidence is there that commenters here don’t believe what they are saying? Are you so arrogant that you can’t conceive of someone truly disagreeing with your opinion?

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