Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How do you explain a missing hand to a child?

Page last updated at 11:24 GMT, Tuesday, 24 February 2009

How do you explain a missing hand to a child?

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Cerrie Burnell
Burnell joined CBeebies last month
Parents have complained that a children's TV presenter with one hand is prompting awkward questions from young children. So how should you explain this kind of disability to a child?

No-one comes up with wrong-footing questions quite like a young child. And young, curious minds don't hesitate to point out differences in people they see around them.

So when the BBC's children's channel CBeebies employed presenter Cerrie Burnell, who was born with only one hand, her appearance on television screens prompted a debate among parents about what they say to their children.

Online message boards on CBeebies and the BBC's disability magazine Ouch! were brimming with support for the employment of a person with a disability, and the way this educated children about diversity.

But a minority of parents expressed concern that Ms Burnell's appearance was "scaring" children. One father said he feared it would give his daughter nightmares and a mother said her two-year-old girl could not watch because she thought the presenter had been hurt.

Ms Burnell, 29, says she doesn't take this personally but these kind of comments highlight the prejudice that disabled people face.

Clare Johnston
Clare Johnston is a student primary school teacher, 31, from Edinburgh, who uses a wheelchair
"Children will be direct, but they don't seem to have the assumption that it stops you doing other things, and they will tend to ask rather cooler questions like 'Can you do wheelies?'"
"Adults are frequently surprised to find you are able to go on with your life, work and hobbies."
When a teacher told the class not to ask questions about her, it made matters worse, she says

"Children come up to me in the street every day and say 'What's that?' I wouldn't say they're frightened but certainly they're inquisitive.

"I would always take the time to explain to a child. All they want is an explanation. They want to know 'What's that?' and 'What's happened?' and 'Why are you different?' And then they will move on."

She hopes that her presence can show young children what they can achieve on merit. But what parents say is up to them.

"I'd never comment on anyone's parenting or the time for them to have a discussion with their child about disabilities.

"It's a totally personal thing and people have to do it when they feel comfortable to do it. But I would just hope that, I guess, me being on CBeebies would present an opportunity for them to do that in the comfort of their own home."

If the child asks questions then they are old enough to understand the answer, she says, and her story is simply that she was born with one hand but it doesn't stop her doing anything.

Hard-of-hearing Barbies

The problem lies with the parents, not the children, says Sir Bert Massie from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

"I think what's happening is a number of adults do have prejudices, do have very negative views about disabled people, and instead of admitting the views are their own, they're projecting them on to their children and saying the children are doing this. And of course they don't give their names [on message boards], so it's all anonymous."

It becomes harder for older children because they can be socially embarrassed
Child psychologist Penelope Leach

Attitudes have improved over time, helped by changes in the law, a higher profile for some disabled people and more awareness of equality issues. And children are more likely to see people with disabilities because many are now taught in mainstream schools.

Even toy makers are getting on message - turning out disability aids like wheelchairs, dark glasses and hearing aids for dolls and action figures.

Child psychologist Penelope Leach says children are faced with so much variety in the world that they do tend to accept what they see, unless someone else implies to them that something is wrong.

Tilly is a doll in a wheelchair, made by Kids Like Me

"Three to four year olds can't be sure that there aren't people in the world who only ever have one arm. There are people who have glasses, or are very tall, or have different skin. Why shouldn't there be people in the world who have a different number of arms?

"It becomes harder for older children because they can be socially embarrassed and they think 'Should I say something or not?' People in wheelchairs complain bitterly that older children and grown-ups don't look at them in the eye but you don't get that with young children."

While young children may react badly to the sight of blood, they would not be frightened by a person with one arm, unless it triggered something that had happened in their family.

"There are a lot of answers you could give. They won't say 'How did she lose her arm?', they are more likely to say 'Where is her arm?' or 'Why has she only got one arm?' And the parent can just say 'I don't know exactly, but maybe she had an accident.'

"Listen to the question you are being asked and answer the question. I wouldn't suggest looking at the presenter and pointing it out but if their child asks a question or makes a comment it's a great mistake to say 'hush, hush'. They want to know the answer to a very sensible question."

Maddy Dilley with son Edward
Ms Dilley says children relate to her better than adults

The difference in attitude between children and adults is striking, says Maddy Dilley who was struck by a debilitating condition which means she uses a wheelchair when leaving the house.

"Children are normally very positive. In buggies they seem to love it because I'm on the same level as them. They tend to grin and young children on foot turn back and smile," says the 24-year-old from Cambridgeshire.

The odd child will hide behind their mum or dad because they're not sure what's going on or point or react slightly differently, but overall it tends to be very positive, open and inquisitive.

"They don't see it as something different because it's not bred into them. While adults can see it in a discriminatory way, children are more innocent."

Adults sometimes ignore her and avoid eye contact when she clearly needs help with something, she says. On one occasion she was wheeled out of the way in a supermarket, which left her in tears.

So instead of shielding children from disability, it seems some adults should take a lead from youngsters in how to respond to it.

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