Over in the U.K., a small but vocal group of parents are whinging that the sight of kiddy TV host Cerrie Burnell’s disability is freaking out their kids. Burnell came into the world missing the lower half of one arm, and she has grown into a smart, charming and talented host of a widely distributed TV program for children (the BBC posts a clip here.) You’d think that would provide a positive example or a source of identification for children with disabilities, as well as children without disabilities who might develop sensitive and respectful attitudes about disabilities altogether.

As Lucy Mangan indicates, much of that relies upon the parents:

No, Burnell’s arm is likely only to give parents nightmares. It is they who do not want to confront disabilities, not now, not at teatime, not ever. To let your toddler be scared every day that Burnell has hurt herself rather than explain the truth is a failure of parenting, not an imposition by the BBC. And toddlers are frightened of lots of things. My two-year-old godson is currently terrified by trees (“Too scary! Too scary!”). His mother isn’t out felling all nearby arboreal horrors – she’s taking him on extra visits to the park.

Interestingly, Disability Bitch blogs at the BBC site that she feels the controversy is completely overblown.

I had my doubts about this ‘story’ from the off. For a start, Cerrie very clearly has more than one arm. She is not a ‘one-armed’ presenter. She has two upper body limbs. One of them is non-standard. That’s all. You can call me pedantic if you like, but reading beyond the headline, you will discover that a whole nine parents have made formal complaints to the BBC about Cerrie’s very visible disability. Nine. Out of hundreds of thousands of regular viewers. The subsequent media coverage has been immense.This is hardly a national outcry. This is not an army of parents refusing to allow their children to watch CBeebies because there’s a lady with a funny arm on it. It’s nine people. Nine very odd people, no doubt. Sure, there’ve been a few additional comments on internet forums, but people write all sorts of prejudiced guff on the internet, as you can see by looking at the comments section on any national newspaper site.

I appreciate Disability Bitch’s skepticism, as with every media controversy there should be taken a grain of salt. However, she goes on to complain that it does not rise to the level of news at all, that there are more important issues (like brush fires) that deserve attention, and should therefore not take up newspaper space. Two problems with this objection: 1) it’s the Information Age, so there is plenty of room in all of our information technology to place this story, however humble, so no need to marginalize disability issues; and 2) those nine official complaints are the tip of the iceberg of parental ignorance that BBC as a broadcaster must contend with. Beyond their business concerns, these people need a “teachable moment.” And even if they are too thick to teach, there are parents around them who are not and could use a refresher course in how to handle questions about sensitive topics from their children.

Frankly, I wish there was more diversity among children’s TV hosts. Back in the day, parents in the southern United States blew a gasket because “Sesame Street” featured black and Latin@ adults and children playing happily together. (I wish I had a source for that; I know that only anecdotally.) Today I’d like to see openly gay hosts or transgendered hosts or hosts wearing a hijab or a kafiyah — I could go on. There is a whole world outside the TV frame that most children are missing. One day they’ll be adults. Wouldn’t we give them a better world if we prepared them for it?

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