When Cerrie Burnell joined CBeebies in 2009 as a regular presenter, a small number of parents contacted the BBC to complain that her missing right hand and forearm was frightening their young children. Newspapers picked up on the story and were universally horrified. Burnell used the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive by championing matters of inclusion. Also being dyslexic and being a single mum to mixed-race daughter Amelie who is five years old, she cares a lot about diversity.
Some of Burnell’s early theatre work was with Graeae and The Nasty Girls, a disability-led theatre company and comedy troupe.
Disability features in The Magical Playroom, a children’s play Burnell has written and stars in, and which is currently touring the UK. In September she published Snowflakes, a children’s picture book which tackles issues of race.
Almost five years after the initial furore, Burnell is still on our screens each week day evening, short arm clearly on show but never mentioned.
Which of your disabilities has a bigger impact on your life, dyslexia or having one short arm?
On sight, it’s my physical disability. For me personally, it’s my dyslexia. But that’s a bit dubious really because it’s not a disability, it’s more a difference.
There are lots of real positives to being dyslexic. It gives you a huge capacity for imagination and thinking outside the box, if the people around the dyslexic person realise and they are given the right support. I don’t think the dyslexia has a negative impact on me now, its just part of the way I think. But I couldn’t write until I was 10 or read until I was eight. So at school, my listening skills were over-developed because I never wrote anything down, I just remembered things.
You have said you’re a disabled person politically. What does that mean?
I think if you are going to talk about minorities and you’re going to put people into different groups, that’s the group that I fit into and the disabled community is the one that I’d identify with. There’s a massive difference between an amputee and someone who was born with one hand. I don’t think that you can lump them all together but the common ground is that anyone with a disability will understand the way that you’re perceived by the non-disabled community.
Having a disability is not a negative label. It doesn’t make you vulnerable, it doesn’t mean that you’re lesser in any way, it doesn’t mean that your life isn’t enriched. It just means that you are a minority.
What does it mean to be disabled in 2013?
It doesn’t really mean anything different to me than it did in 2012 or in any other year of my life but I do think there should be more representation of disabled people on TV now.
I’m very lucky because CBeebies is one of the most diverse channels the BBC has. Any person from any walk of life in the UK can turn that on and see somebody or someone that they can relate to. I think it’s great that children are learning about inclusion without realising it.
What does your daughter think about having a disabled mum?
Sometimes she’ll say “I want to have one hand. Why can’t I have one?” Other times, “Do you wish you had two hands?” I’ll say no, I’m fine, and she’ll say, “Oh good, can I have a cake?”
And the other way round, what’s it like to be a disabled parent?
I was just like any other new mum really, up to my eyes. When I got my pushchair, I did make sure that it was one I could fold away quickly with one hand.
I volunteered when I was younger in a children’s home in a leprosy centre in India, so I knew about changing nappies and all of that stuff.
If you want to have a baby, however limited you might be, you’ll still find a way to do it.
Will you ever stop wanting to talk about disability?
I don’t think I ever will, it’s far too important an issue.
Disability will always be part of my work but not all of it.
The second book I’ve written, which doesn’t come out until April 2015, is about a little girl who’s in a wheelchair and its called Mermaid. I can’t say any more about it than that.
Why do you think some well-known disabled people shy away from talking about their impairment?
I can appreciate that if they are constantly asked the same questions, time and time again, it could become a bit dull.
In every interview I’ve ever done, I’ve had to explain that I wasn’t hurt by any of the comments that were made when I joined CBeebies. I’m not sure I’ll ever get away from that.
What would you like to do after CBeebies?
I’ll stay there for as long as I can but we children’s TV presenters don’t have a particularly long shelf life. In the future, I want to do more theatre, I’d like to do film, I’ll certainly write more children’s books.
I’d like to write a memoir about the unexpected side of being disabled. About how actually it is only a small part of your life and it is not the most interesting thing about you.
Would you want to present television for adults?
I’m slightly becoming a children’s author. That’s something I’d never want to stop. Picture books and children’s books are the most important books of all because that’s how you pull someone in. That’s how you build a relationship with literature. I used to learn them by heart, remembering which lines went with which picture. Then I’d make my own stories up. Even though I couldn’t write things down, that was the starting point for my becoming an author. Learning to read is so important and books are so important that I wouldn’t do anything to burn any bridges.
Who is your favourite CBeebies character?
I do love The Adventures of Abney and Teal. Teal is a little ragdoll with red hair and Abney is a man who looks like a toy. They live in a tree house on this island which is in the middle of a lake, in the middle of a city. It is quite bizarre and very lovely, with lots of music and gentle colours.
But what I think CBeebies is really good at is the live action. At getting children on screen who aren’t showy.