Cerrie Burnell explored Britain’s treatment of disabled people over history, from the Victorian workhouses for the ‘feeble-minded’ to the activists and trailblazers of the modern day

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.

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