Saturday, January 7, 2012

CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell on breaking down barriers for disabled TV talent in Britain

From the Manchester Evening News in the UK:

Cerrie Burnell (pictured) doesn’t see herself as a role model. As one of the most high-profile disabled TV presenters in the UK, the term is often attached to her by others. But the 32-year-old says: "Anyone who works at CBeebies is seen as a role model by the children who watch it and their parents.

"It’s such a big word. I don’t see myself as a role model. But I like to think I am a sign it is possible."

And what she has proved is possible is for a disabled person to be accepted, adored even, by a broad television audience. In a world where those with disabilities are often discriminated against, ignored and neglected, Cerrie has thrived by being herself.

Born with her lower arm missing, this hasn’t prevented her from becoming one of the most popular personalities on children’s TV. Given the distinct lack of disabled people in the media, it is a notable achievement. hence the role model tag.

"I’ve been very lucky to have been given this opportunity," she says, modestly. "I’m very grateful for it. I’m very happy to be the person who is breaking down barriers."

And just how big those barriers she is smashing are was demonstrated when Cerrie first appeared on

CBeebies in 2009. The reaction from most viewers was positive but some parents complained their children were upset by the sight of the new, one-armed presenter. There was a flurry of emails objecting to her presence and one viewer left an online rant charmingly stating their child was "freaked out" by her appearance.

In the face of such hostility, Cerrie displayed a calmness and inner strength that perhaps she has developed throughout a lifetime of being subjected to stares and comments from strangers.

Today, three years on from her on-screen début, she plays down the reaction and underlines it was a minority who objected. "The BBC received nine complaints," she says, matter-of-factly. "If people are uncomfortable, it comes from naivety. They haven’t been exposed to someone with a disability before.

"If I’ve ever encountered that kind of reaction in my life I’ve found the best thing is to sit down and explain to the person about my disability and let them ask questions."

Now it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to her. She’s a fixture on CBeebies, and for good reason.

Pretty and petite, with wide eyes, and a warm and gentle manner, Cerrie radiates an innocent charm, making her perhaps the perfect presenter for CBeebies, the most popular channel for kids under six years old.

And the reaction from young viewers has been predictably positive. "I think children are very accepting. When they see me on TV I don’t think they see my arm. Other things catch their attention. They might think, ‘Oh she’s wearing a pink jumper’.

"Whenever I see children all they want to talk about is Mr Tumble or Iggle Piggle (both well known CBeebies characters). Or, at the moment, when I see children they get very excited that I’m in Manchester."

Cerrie, along with her three-year -old daughter, Amelie, has been living in the north west for two months. The moved followed the BBC’s decision to relocate its children’s TV departments north, to Salford.

Unlike some famous talent, and some of the corporation’s executives, Cerrie has rejected the idea of commuting each week, and moved out of the south east and set up home in south Manchester. "I’ve become hardened to rain since I’ve lived here," she laughs.

Having a young child means Cerrie not only works at CBeebies but also spends a considerable amount of time watching it. "I think my daughter is bored by seeing me on telly. She has grown up with it. She’s met everybody at CBeebies. I think she believes everyone works in TV."

Cerrie says working at the channel is "as fun as it looks". "It is a diverse place. All telly should be like it. It’s important to reflect the country."

In conversation, she is reflective, eloquent and polite. The warmth, familiar from her on-screen persona, is present but her sunny disposition can’t conceal a streak of steel. Here is someone who has evidently acquired the toughness to overcome the obstacles life has thrown at her.

An example of that steel is the decision she made, aged just nine, to never wear a prosthetic arm again, having been forced to wear one during her early years.

In later life, warnings from drama tutors that she’d struggle to find roles if she didn’t disguise her arm fell on determinedly deaf ears.

Understandably, she is outspoken when it comes to the visibility of disabled people.

"There aren’t enough disabled presenters or actors. There aren’t enough disabled people in the media. People need to open their doors. It’s better than it used to be, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

"It’s similar to 25 years ago when there were lots of black and Asian actors struggling to get work.

"Thankfully that situation has improved. Disability is the last diversity to go through that process."

So she’s backing a BBC scheme to uncover new disabled presenting talent.

PresentAble is a training programme for disabled people, designed to develop their on-screen careers.

"I think it is a positive thing," says Cerrie. "And it is necessary."

There are few disabled presenters with her profile. This scheme will seek to address that. Cerrie hopes talent can be judged on merit. But some suggest she herself has benefited from a form of quota-filling.

Does she think she got the job because the BBC wanted to demonstrate its equal opportunities credentials?

"But even if the brief had been to find a disabled person I would have been happy with that. In this industry, casting can be your way in. That’s how it works."

It’s a typically pragmatic approach from a woman determined not to be defined by her disability.

She may not see it herself, but there’s no denying Cerrie is a role model, for all of us.