Saturday 16 December 2017

Facing prejudice is children's TV star Cerrie's only disability

Cerrie Burnell tells Andrea Byrne that the only pity she has is for the women on The Only Way is Essex

Andrea Byrne

'Inspirational' is a word bandied about all too freely nowadays, but Cerrie Burnell undoubtedly deserves the description. Parents of young children will know her as the chirpy, pretty presenter of popular TV show Cbeebies.

She was born with her right arm ending slightly below her elbow but, against parental and medical advice, decided when she was only nine that she would no longer wear a prosthetic arm.

"I hated it. It was useless, really heavy, really cumbersome. In many ways it felt like that was the disability. I didn't want to wear it, so a lot of the time I was just carrying it around with me. It was a pain, basically," she says.

Working as an actress and dancer before landing her dream job in the BBC, Cerrie's disability certainly hasn't hindered her. In fact, it seems having only one arm has made her determined to do more.

"There is no reason why it would stop me. It doesn't really restrict me physically. In the way that it is a disability is through other people's perception. It's just to do with how I look. I'd say the only thing I can't do is cut up steak," she laughs, "I mean I can do it but it just takes a long time."

Cerrie shows no hint of self-pity. In fact, she wonders why anyone would think she deserves it. "That's like saying someone of a deprived background or ethnicity may have self-pity, it's just not necessary ... I never felt like, 'oh I wish I had two hands', because it's just too foreign a concept ... It's kind of sink or swim, if you don't accept it, you're just going to be hurting yourself for the rest of your life, every time you look in the mirror.

"I think people assume that I don't like it. I am really very happy with all of my body. And I think in some ways that perhaps having one hand has given me that strength. If you watch say The Only Way is Essex -- there is not even a natural mouth or a natural chest. Those young girls have just been conditioned to think that that is acceptable. Isn't it really sad that women feel they have to do that just to look normal -- they have to go through a major life-threatening operation, just to be able to fit in with everyone else?

"I am really thankful that I don't ever feel like that. I don't have the perfect figure (she is actually as svelte as any model). I have had a baby, I am able to look at myself very realistically. I see the good and the bad, but my arm isn't one of those," she says over tea during a recent visit to Dublin to promote her involvement in the Access, Care & Mobility Expo.

Cerrie is learning to drive at the moment, which is "daunting", given that her lessons are taking place in busy central London, which is where she lives with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Amelie.

Speaking about the struggles of being a working single mother, Cerrie says, "I have been single all along. It's a struggle. It's a balancing act and a juggling act and yeah my head is like a big diary all the time. But I am very lucky. I have fantastic friends and great support from my family (her mother's parents are originally from Howth). I think sometimes single mums get quite negative press -- you are either seen as a victim or you're seen as a worse parent or someone who is struggling -- when actually in the population of London there are so many single- parent families now."

The parents of young children I spoke to before meeting Cerrie all told of how much their children adore her, but that didn't stop a nasty minority complaining to the BBC that Cerrie's disability was frightening their children.

"It wasn't hurtful to me, and people always think it would be. But when you have grown up with something and I have met a lot of disabled people who have had it a lot harder than me, who have got a real political understanding of the situation which is that it's not you personally. The prejudice is not about you as a person. It's like racism, it's about what you represent. In this particular incident, it came out of concern. Parents weren't ready to have those conversations about diversity with their child ... but the real issue that it raises is that we don't have enough representation of disabled people on telly."

Cerrie Burnell is special guest speaker at the Access, Care & Mobility Expo and Disabled Drivers' Association of Ireland conference on June 10-11 at CityWest in Dublin. The expo is free and open to the public. see www.ddai.ie and www.accessandmobility.ie

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