Disability in TV: yes they can

In 2009, a disabled children’s presenter faced a barrage of abuse from parents who didn’t think it was suitable for her to be on screen. Cerrie Burnell, who was born with a right arm that ends just below the elbow, found herself the target of a campaign which aimed to get her removed from her presenting job on CBeebies. The campaign was set up by parents who claimed that Cerrie was ‘scaring children’. Disability charities jumped to the defence of Cerrie and the BBC, and Cerrie ultimately kept her job, but the fact that this campaign existed, and that it gained enough support to attract press attention, is a disturbing insight into the way many people in the UK still feel about disability. In an interview with Metro, Cerrie stated that people’s objections to her weren’t personal, but the result of seeing ‘something unfamiliar and challenging’, and this is not surprising; as far as representation in the media is concerned, disabled people are almost non-existent.

Disability has been absent from our TV screens for a long time. Even during the Paralympics, the coverage was, for a long time, very limited. While the Olympics would be constantly covered on the BBC, the lack of coverage by the British media meant that many were not even aware that the events were taking place. Olympic fever is inescapable; many who would usually have no interest in sport are drawn in by excitement of it all. Some may argue that fatigue may have settled in by the time the Paralympics airs, but it is very possible that the lack of interest in the events is down to the lack of coverage it has received over the years. A change came, to an extent, in 2012, when Channel 4 covered the Paralympic games. Not only were British viewing figures broken, but the games also attracted an international audience of 3.4 billion people. The International Paralympic committee noted a culminated growth of almost one billion (from the Beijing games in 2008. The games were broadcast in 115 countries and territories, more than ever before, and saw an 82% rise in hours broadcast to over 2,500 hours of content. Prior to this increase in broadcasting hours, it could be argued that the Paralympics simply didn’t interest people. However, seeing as viewing figures rose significantly along with the rise in hours broadcast, it shows there is an interest out there for Paralympic sport.

The Paralympics not only gave visibility to disabled people, but also introduced a wider dialogue about disability. Disability is often a taboo subject, with many able-bodied people believing it more respectful to ignore it then to engage with any kind of dialogue. The 2012 Paralympic games were accompanied by the launch of The Last Leg, which started out its life as a round-up show at the end of each day of the games. The Last Leg, which features three presenters, two of whom are disabled, encouraged discussion about disability, partially through the use of #IsItOkay, which allowed people to ask questions about disability that they would usually be afraid to ask. This led to audiences interacting with Paralympic sport in a new way.

The Paralympics can be, and have proved to be, hugely popular, when given proper coverage. Despite the worries that the Rio games would not be able to go ahead as planned due to funding, they have been a huge success. I like to think that this success will continue, just as long as the games get the coverage they deserve.


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August 2021
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