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Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain Review – Have Attitudes Changed?

January 20, 2021

Children’s TV presenters are often at the forefront of social change. Perhaps this is because – as one of the people interviewed in Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain (BBC Two) remarked – “children are much better at inclusion” than their angry-letter-writing, Ofcom-complaint-making parents.

Ben Cajee, of the current CBeebies cohort, won praise for his age-appropriate discussion of racism in October, but in 2009 it was his predecessor Cerrie Burnell who inadvertently became an activist. Burnell was born with a right arm that ends just below the elbow. She hadn’t set out to champion the rights of disabled people – all she wanted was to introduce another episode of Balamory – but when parents complained that her appearance was “scaring children”, she did just that.

Where do such prejudices against disabled people come from? This documentary saw Burnell explore that question, finding the beginnings of an answer in the archives of a workhouse in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. There, page after page of an 1861 parliamentary report reduced human beings to labels such as “feeble-minded”, an umbrella term covering all manner of physical and mental conditions. In Victorian Britain, disabled and impoverished people were routinely shut away from the rest of society in workhouses. When Burnell tentatively suggested that “a shadow of that has carried on, in a way”, the continuity was striking. It was in this 19th-century hell that the 21st century’s punitive attitudes towards benefits recipients took root.Advertisementhttps://ca7854385c621049340c3956dcb35e30.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Not everyone was content to leave disabled people to fend for themselves, however. Burnell’s history is littered with misguided do-gooders, such as the Manchester-area benefactor Mary Dendy, whose attempts to save Britain from “this evil” caused generations of misery. A committed eugenicist, she dedicated her life to founding Sandlebridge Colony, “a home for the permanent care of the feeble-minded”, and campaigning for the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which gave authorities sweeping powers to institutionalise people against their will.

At this point, Silenced shifted in tone from Who Do You Think You Are? social history to an unusually bleak episode of ITV’s reunion show Long Lost Family. Brothers David and Alan Gambell only discovered the existence of an older sister, Jean, in 2007 after opening a letter addressed to their long-dead mother. Jean had been shut away in a Macclesfield care home for more than 70 years, but, when the brothers were at last able to visit, she immediately recognised them and greeted them by name. “Within weeks, she died,” said David. “She was just hanging on to see her family at long last.”Cerrie Burnell: ‘Disabled people have been shut away during the pandemic’Read more


It was all getting almost unbearably sad by the time the first heroes of Burnell’s history emerged to point the way forward. There was Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish spinal injuries specialist who fled Nazi Germany, then used competitive sports to restore the confidence of his paraplegic patients in England, ultimately founding the Paralympic Games. Later, in 1972, the trailblazer Paul Hunt wrote a letter to the Guardian calling for the formation of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), resulting in the development of the social model of disability. This was the revolutionary idea that people were not disabled by their impairment or difference, but by a society that, for example, had no wheelchair ramps at train stations.

Particularly badass, though, were the disability rights activists Jane Campbell and Alia Hassan, who recalled for Burnell the thrill of “bringing London to a standstill” with their direct action campaign in the 80s. The look of baffled insult on Chris Tarrant’s face when he emerged from the Telethon ’92 charity fundraiser at LWT studios to a crowd of protesters holding “Piss on Pity” placards was a picture. It does seem, though, that the producers missed a trick in not approaching Tarrant for an updated comment. What better case study on how popular attitudes to disabled people have – or haven’t – changed over the past 30 years?

The history of disabled Britain features plenty of heroes to inspire, but what Silenced so movingly illustrated is that this is not really the story of individuals who overcame the odds. In fact, it is the story of how entire communities can – and must – open up to include humans in all our variety. So, it felt appropriate to give the last word to Micheline Mason, a campaigner for integrated schools from a time before CBeebies: “When people saw the non-disabled kids saying we want our friends in school with us, we had a lot of fun together, y’know, that’s what changes people. You almost can’t argue about it any more.”

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