Children's TV pretends disability doesn't exist


One in 20 children in the UK have a disability but major commercial channels such as Disney and Nickelodeon don’t feature any prominent disabled characters

 Fireman Sam character, Hannah Sparkes is one of the only prominent disabled characters currently on long-running children’s television franchises. Photograph: HIT Entertainment

Tim Smedley

Tuesday 28 July 2015 11.50 BSTLast modified on Thursday 11 August 2016 11.16 BST

Fireman Sam and How to Train Your Dragon feature the only disabled characters currently on long-running children’s television franchises.

Other characters crop up here and there – the Disney Channel introduced double-amputee Aussie explorer, Wildlife Will to its Doc McStuffins show, and it featured wheelchair user Johnny McBride (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) in The Proud Family – but both appeared for one episode only. 

The BBC has a history of disabled characters, from Grange Hill’s Rachel Burns with cerebral palsy (played by comedian Francesca Martinez), to Balamory’s wheelchair user Penny Pocket. The broadcaster also has its visual impairment show Melody, and sign-language show, Magic Hands

The public service broadcaster’s remit to “reflect a wide mix of children and presenters in terms of disability, gender and ethnicity”, means inclusivity is expected. What shouldn’t be expected, is the commercial sector’s relative lack of interest. 

Camilla Arnold, creative director of Flashing Lights Media, the deaf-led company behind Magic Hands, argues that while the BBC is fulfilling its duties, no other channels are matching this. “[It’s] shocking – we’re in the 21st century! The other channels need to catch up as there’s a definite lack of representation.”

Among the major commercial producers we contacted, the Disney Channel, Zodiak Kids and Nickelodeon do not have a single current children’s show with a prominent disabled character. 

FremantleMedia however, (responsible for the likes of The X Factor), does have its comedy series Strange Hill High which is aired on CBBC and includes Samia Speed (witty and in a wheelchair), school caretaker Murdock (with a bionic hand) and hero Mitchell Tanner (living with ADHD).


Getting away from ‘perfection’

But given that one in 20 children in the UK have a disability, this is pretty scant representation. 

We need to get away from this idea of ‘perfection’, the handsome prince and beautiful princess

Philip Connolly

Dr Amy Holdsworth, lecturer in film and television studies at Glasgow University is one of the few academics looking at disability in children’s TV. She says that “gender and ethnicity are very high on the agenda, but disability has always been less visible.” Most representation “still relates to things like Children in Need, the charity ‘poster child’.”

The need for better representation, says Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager at Disability Rights UK, comes from “seeing people like ourselves on-screen. 

“It is like an acknowledgement or recognition that we are all human. We need to get away from this idea of ‘perfection’, the handsome prince and beautiful princess – these stories have a powerful grip on the imagination and how children come to see the world.”

For Arnold, seeing a deaf character on Grange Hill was a turning point in her life. “I could relate to her … [It means] children no longer have to solely measure themselves against a non-disabled community because they are properly represented.” 

She adds that better representation is also important for exposing non-disabled children to diversity to encourage them to be non-judgmental and encourage interaction.


The fear factor

Jenny Sealey, co-director of the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony and artistic director of sign language theatre company Graeae, agrees that the need for positive role models is “profound and necessary.” She recounts an email from a mother which said that the Fireman Sam character, Hannah Sparkes (who uses a wheelchair), “ helped her to explain to her child about her dad being a wheelchair user.”

Sealey believes there remains a great deal of fear and ignorance around disability. She has been asked by writers and directors keen to embrace diversity to consult on casting and storylines, but due to government cuts in access to work and the independent living fund “producers who hold the purse strings see employing [disabled actor and crew] as a financial risk.” 


This could mean that producers are missing out on a commercial opportunity. The BBC’s Mr Tumble helps children with special needs through his use of Makaton (a language programme for individuals who can’t communicate efficiently by speaking). Created by former BBC producer Allan Johnston, Something Special starring Mr Tumble (played by Justin Fletcher) has been Britain’s most popular children’s performer for over a decade, appealing to children of all abilities. While FreemantleMedia’s popular Tree Fu Tom series was originally developed by producer Dan Bays to help children with dyspraxia.

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Magic Hands too, argues Arnold, has been hugely successful because it doesn’t just tick the boxes but appeals to both deaf and hearing audiences. She believes, “there is definitely commercial potential for channels to engage with an untapped audience.” 

However, Connolly has a plea for writer and producers: go beyond wheelchairs. “Only one in seven disabled people are wheelchair users. So it’s important to present disability in all its diversity … [and] for the disabled person to be presented not as the vulnerable member of the band, but as the leader, the person who finds the solutions to challenges the group face. We need more stories like that.”


TV presenter Cerrie Burnell: 'I don't care if you are offended'

The BBC faced a barrage of complaints when she first appeared on CBeebies. But having lived with stares and comments all her life, Cerrie Burnell proudly refuses to hide her disability

 'It's good for children to get a rounded view of the world' . . . CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Emine Saner

Just recently, Cerrie Burnell's mother reminded her of the daily fights they had when Burnell was a child. Every morning before school, there was a struggle, lasting up to two hours, to get her to wear a prosthetic arm. Her doctors had told her parents that it would make their daughter's life easier: it would help with her balance, she would be able to use a knife and fork and, I suspect, fit in better with the other children at school. But to Burnell, it was this "heavy, uncomfortable, ugly, pointless . . . thing" that had become her disability, not the fact that she had been born with her lower right arm missing. "Take it off me and I can do anything; put it on and it was like a burden, clipped wings," she says. "It stopped me running, jumping. My friends thought it was stupid as well. My parents weren't comfortable with making me wear it but I think they felt they had to. I don't remember this but my mum told me the other week that I used to say to her, 'I'm more beautiful without it.'"

At the age of nine, she announced she would never wear a prosthetic arm again, and she hasn't – not when her tutors at drama school suggested she wear one to help her career prospects, and certainly not when shortly after she landed her job as a presenter on CBeebies, the BBC's children's channel, in January 2009, a flurry of demented emails and posts on a BBC messageboard objected to her presence on television. One parent wrote that her appearance "freaked out" their child, another that the broadcaster was just filling minority quotas, as if this one aspect of her body defined her, whereas in fact it would be hard to find a children's TV presenter more perfect than 30-year-old Burnell – she can sing and dance, she is beautiful, with a wide, open childlike face, and she radiates a rare goodness.

When you have lived with stares and comments all your life, she points out, when we meet in a cafe in west London near where she lives with her two-year-old daughter, "it wasn't anything I hadn't heard before. It didn't come as a surprise to me. It wasn't about me, it was about a much longer-standing prejudice. If anything, it made me think it's even more important to raise the profile of disability in a positive way. By that, I don't mean talking about disability for hours on end, which is dull for everyone – just get up, get out there and do something that has nothing to do with disability and let people see you."

Did it not upset her, enrage her? She shakes her head. "I was so tired, and so busy. Around the same time my dad had a heart attack. I had a new baby, my dad was in hospital and I had a new job. I just didn't have any spare energy to give to it.

"I didn't go on to the messageboard but people would tell me what was said. One said: 'Between the programmes I have to turn CBeebies over because my daughter is so frightened of Cerrie it's giving her nightmares.' That might be true, but either watch another channel or just explain to your child [that there is nothing to be afraid of]. We all want to protect them so much but sometimes we can forget that it's good to get a rounded view of the world. There are a lot of children who watch CBeebies who have seen far worse things than someone with one hand – children in care, or with refugee status, or who have been abused. I think it's disrespectful to say [a person with] one arm is going to frighten them. But also, it's all right for people to be frightened about it because it is different. Come and ask me the question and I'm happy to answer."

She used to get a lot of children asking her, "but it's less so now; now they want to talk to me about Iggle Piggle." A quick ask-around of parents, all of whom swoon at the mention of Burnell's name, confirm that their children did ask why Burnell didn't have a lower arm, but once it was explained to them they accepted it happily, which seems to be the experience of the huge number of parents who came out in support of Burnell at the time.

But others suggested that Burnell should wear long sleeves, as if this was some sort of compromise for "allowing" her on the television; she never once considered it. "I'm not thinking, 'Oh I need to cover my arm for them.' I'm just in my life doing whatever I want. If I've got a long sleeve on, it's the equivalent of having a glove on, like I wouldn't be able to do this" – she holds her glass in the crook of her arm, where her cardigan has been pulled up to her bicep – "I'm not going to restrict my own physicality because someone is uncomfortable with it – they're just going to have to deal with it. I had that said to me at drama school: 'Perhaps you should wear a long sleeve on stage.' I just thought, 'Perhaps you should wear some Sellotape over your mouth.'"

How I wish she had said it. I'm surprised she didn't. After a few minutes in Burnell's company it's clear that underpinning her warmth, she is steely, wilful and uncompromising about who she is. (Yet another illustration: at the age of 11, she changed her name from Claire to Cerrie – she didn't feel like a "Claire" – and insisted that it stuck.) I tell her this and she laughs. "When you've been fighting from the age of two not to wear a plastic hand every day, you are."

She wore a prosthetic arm for a play at university, "because I thought it was no different from wearing a wig, but I was so uncomfortable with it and I thought I'm not going to do this. If it slows [my career] down then that's the path I'm going to take because I'm not going to do something that compromises who I am or be ashamed of something I'm comfortable with. It's just not progressive. Obviously, I'd like people not to be offended, but if they are I'm not going to waste any time worrying about it. Ultimately, I don't care if you're offended."

Burnell says she considers herself disabled "politically, and I'm very proud of that, but as a child I didn't think of myself as disabled. I overcame that difficulty of accepting it in my teenage years and once I accepted it, it has never been a problem. You can't be miserable for ever about something that you can't change." When people said appalling things to her, as they occasionally did, she simply says: "It just didn't hurt me somehow." She credits her parents, who never treated her any differently from her younger brother, for instilling in them a belief that they could achieve whatever they wanted.

For Burnell, this was to be an actor; she became involved with the National Youth Theatre before studying drama at Manchester Metropolitan University. "And then I was a working actress, supposedly, although I had a lot of time out of work." She laughs. She got good reviews for her theatre work, and appeared in small parts in TV shows such as EastEnders and Holby City before CBeebies. How much did her disability affect her career? It's impossible to say, but it's obvious that there are few roles for disabled actors. "I don't think there are enough disabled writers and I don't think people are willing to write about disability without some kind of knowledge," says Burnell. "Or when they do it is often so awful. The storylines are always about someone losing their legs or their sight and then regaining it – phew, the problem is over! It's only in the last few years that disability hasn't been seen as something to get over. We need more disability storylines that are based in truth, and more positive disabled icons." It would be a waste of her energy to get angry about it, she says: "I would rather put that into trying to change it and you do that through writing." She has written a children's play, about a fairy with one wing, that she hopes will become an animation, and she plans to write a children's book.

Burnell got the CBeebies job just three months after the birth of her daughter, Amelie. She had known early on in the pregnancy that she would be raising her baby alone – she is not with her daughter's father and doesn't want to say anything about him – but carrying on the pregnancy was something that not everybody around her believed was the right thing to do. "It was daunting but I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do it," she says. "When you have that clarity, it really gives you strength, even if people around you are being negative, unsupportive and not able to understand. Certain members of my family thought it was the wrong thing and stopped speaking to me. With my friends, it's not that they thought it was the wrong thing but there was a lot of 'Are you sure you're ready?'" By the time Amelie was born, everyone had come round to Burnell's decision, "but I was disappointed that people weren't immediately happy. I had gone, not inward, but I had all these questions and concerns from people, but while that was going on I was growing a baby and that was the bigger thing for me to focus on."

Getting the CBeebies job when she did wasn't the best timing, she says, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. She remembers her first day as being "awful, really awful. I was breastfeeding and it was the first time I had been away from her for the day. My breasts were leaking, and I was crying because I missed her. But you get on. Lots of mums have to go back to work. Now, I think about it and laugh because it wasn't that bad, but it did feel difficult at the time."

Burnell was chosen as one of this year's fellows of the Foundling Museum in London (the others are Grayson Perry and Julian Lloyd Webber, and they get involved in projects, especially those for children); as part of the role she has used her experience of being a lone parent in a new exhibition, Baby Love, for which she has interviewed other single mothers to accompany their portraits. "I don't think single mothers are portrayed as being happy, we're portrayed as being survivors or fighters," she says. "But actually, being a mum is just fantastic. One woman I interviewed said she didn't want to become a single mother because she had been raised by a single mother and wanted to break that cycle. She felt really responsible for that but once she had become a single parent, she felt it was so much better than she thought."

For Burnell, it was hard in the weeks after Amelie was born, "but any new mother will tell you that, whether they are in a relationship or not. I probably expected to have a child in a relationship, as most people do, but my identity as a single parent is something I find quite freeing." She beams as she gets ready to get back to her daughter. "I can drift wherever I want to, I'm not bound by anyone else apart from what's right for her."


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