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Cerrie Burnell: ‘Disabled People Have Been Shut Away During The Pandemic’

January 20, 2021

“As a disabled person you have to be so political every day,” says Cerrie Burnell, “just in how you go about your life; being joyful has to be a choice because you are told at the beginning that you’re not really welcome here or there is something wrong with you.”

Burnell, a former presenter on the children’s channel CBeebies was born without the lower part of her right arm. The subject of prejudice by some parents when she got the CBeebies job, Burnell – also an actor and writer – explores the origins of negative attitudes towards disability in a BBC Two documentary on Tuesday, Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain.

Part of a BBC season marking the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), the programme asks why disabled people have been ostracised from society, charts the battle for rights and concludes that, despite the freedoms won, much progress still needs to be made.The Guardian view on disability rights: a deficit of attentionRead more

Burnell describes the show as “a wake-up call but not in a shouty way”, and says making it opened her eyes to the systemic ableism that has led to those with disabilities being treated as inferior.Advertisement

In Great Britain, just over half of disabled people (52.5%) are in employment, compared with 76.3% for the population as a whole,while statistics for England show that for those with a learning disability, the figure is only 5.6%.

Burnell cites the DDA as the most significant advance made for UK disability rights, although she is shocked at how relatively recently it was introduced.

“People had been campaigning since the 60s to have the right to choose where to live or how to dress or to have a relationship or to have children or to get to keep those children. All of those things had been taken away from us.”

The documentary follows Burnell as she questions why the prejudice towards disabled people dating back centuries persists today. Contemporary attitudes, she learns, were shaped by the segregation of disabled people, first in workhouses and then in 20th-century institutions that admitted children with physical and learning disabilities and where they remained shut away for decades.

She also meets some of the trailblazers and crusaders who campaigned for disability rights and inclusive education and pioneered independent living.

But she warns that rights fought for over decades can swiftly be lost. Disabled people had already been badly affected by austerity policies – which have led to cuts to welfare payments and social care funding, and made it harder for disabled people to live independently – and she feels that disabled people have “yet again been segregated and shut away” during the coronavirus crisis.

The first thing the public heard during the pandemic was that people didn’t have to worry about the virus as long as they didn’t have an underlying health condition, says Burnell. “Well, what if you do?” she asks. “It doesn’t mean that your life is any less valuable and again it is the disabled community who suffered the most throughout the pandemic and the death toll has been high.”

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in England and Wales, disabled people account for almost six in 10 (59%) of all deaths involving Covid-19.

The fallout from the pandemic will be “brutal”, says Burnell, and “isn’t just going to suddenly end when everyone has been vaccinated because we’ll have lost so many people and services will be readjusting to the aftermath of the crisis”. She feels the emotional impact of the past year will take many people time to recover from, whether they were feeling anxious about going back into the world after isolating or they are working in overstretched public services.

Post-pandemic recovery plans must focus on improving access to spaces – from workplaces to cafes and other venues and better awareness of disability issues, Burnell believes. She especially wants disability to no longer be viewed as a barrier to employment, learning and living a full life.

“I think there is going to be a huge amount of anxiety going back out into the world,” she says. “The world wasn’t particularly kind to disabled people before the pandemic, so a lot of those small victories are going to have to be refought for.”

Burnell hopes her work – whether on this documentary, presenting on CBeebies or as an author – will help to play a part in “normalising” disability. She looks back fondly on her time on the children’s channel.

“I got to do a job that I loved and it was fabulous that it started conversations about disability,” she says, “but it is still very telling that it was needed. Now when you see someone on screen with one hand, without a prosthetic, hopefully it is less jarring than it was pre my time on CBeebies.”

In a 2011 Guardian interview, she called for more positive disabled icons – so have things improved over the past decade? She says advances have been made in getting more disabled actors on screen, citing Silent Witness’s Liz Carr, rock musician, actor and writer Mat Fraser, Years and Years star Ruth Madeley and Melissa Johns, who has appeared in Coronation Street and BBC drama Life.

“Of course there is further to go, there always is,” she adds. “While there may be many working disabled actors, we are not yet at the point where we have got superstars, but that day is coming. I have much hope and I hope to be part of that change.”

She hopes eventually to see the media present more nuanced narratives of disabled people’s lives, beyond the current binary of misery or triumph over adversity: “We never explore things in a non-obvious way, we never explore the subtleties, the love or the joy.”

Curriculum vitae

Age: 41.

Family: Solo parent to a daughter.

Education: Cavendish secondary school, Eastbourne; Manchester Metropolitan University (acting).

Career: 2018-present: actor, author and TV presenter; 2018: actor, Doctors; 2018: presenter, Matron, Medicine and me; 2009-17, presenter on CBeebies, along with other shows such as The One Show and The Wright Stuff; 2002-08, actor, various roles, including The Bill, Holby City, EastEnders and Grange Hill; 2002-08: playwright.

Public life: Writer in residence, Booktrust.

Interests: Beach volleyball, ice skating, yoga and meditation.

  • Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain is on BBC Two at 9pm on 19 January and available on iPlayer after that
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