A couple of nights ago, my friend, Lou, sent me a link via Facebook to this Guardian article regarding the complaints the BBC have so far received about children’s television presenter Cerrie Burnell, who was born with only one hand. At the time of writing, the article reports, the BBC had so far received nine official complaints from parents claiming that they cannot let their children watch because such a sight could “possibly cause sleep problems”, that toddlers find her scary and that — shock, horror! — they are being forced to discuss “disability” with their children before they are ready.
My immediate response was to shrug and say to myself, “Yeah, well, that’s stupid people for you.” My experience of disability (I have Type II Spinal Muscular Atrophy) has, generally speaking, been pretty good. I have always found people on the whole considerate and understanding, but, yes, there are idiots with prejudices and insecurities of their own. The relatively small number of complaints, however disturbing it may be, speaks volumes. The vast majority of parents watching this show, I’m sure, handled their children’s questions ably and got on with enjoying the show.
Which took me in a slightly different direction than some might expect. The Guardian article is entitled “It Is Parents Who Can’t Face Disability on TV” [italics mine]. Parents. Not some parents, it would seem, but if not all of them, a fair few, at least. Nine, in other words.
Now don’t misunderstand me, Lucy Mangan makes some excellent points — and the article is definitely worth reading — but there are a couple generalisations/inaccuracies that I feel need to be addressed.
Firstly, to reiterate the point I’ve already made, this was a very small number of parents. Lucy mentions that there were “many more blog postings” regarding the story, none of which she provides links to, and none of which I’ve read. Knowing the blogosphere as I do, however, I’m quite certain that those complaining about this television presenter will have been in a very small minority. There will be plenty of people shouting them down.
Secondly, on the point of parents not being able to “face disability on [children's] TV”… well, frankly, this is actually quite inaccurate. In the early 1980s I, in my electric wheelchair, wearing my Milwaukee spinal brace, appeared for eight weeks on the Yorkshire television children’s programme Book Tower. I was very visibly disabled, and the spinal brace in particular will no doubt have raised a few questions in some households. Yet, as far as I know, there were no complaints.
More to the point, the producer of Book Tower at the time was a very talented lady called Anne Wood. Anne went on to form her own production company — Ragdoll Productions, the company behind, amongst other things, the Teletubbies. Anne’s work in the intervening years has quite often focused on preschool children’s television, with programmes such as Rosie and Jim, Brum and others, and a number of times that I know of (and, not having kids of my own, I’m not exactly an avid watcher of her programmes… no, really!) children with disabilities have featured.
Disability is not something that is new to children’s television. In fact it seems to me that disability is featured more on children’s television than any other area. Even many non-Ragdoll Productions shows for children have and do feature people with disabilities (Balamory springs to mind.)
So, in conclusion, yes — there are stupid people who will try to inflict their stupidity, bigotry and insecurities on others. The best thing we can do is shame them, talk about the ridiculous statements they make and, even, I would suggest, heap ridicule upon them. But when we respond to such comments/complaints we really need to be careful that we don’t inadvertently alienate the very people who are on our “side”. The vast majority of parents are intelligent and responsible, and whilst television could do a much better job with regard its representation of disability, children’s television has been at the forefront for a number of years, without a complaining parent to be heard.