The Today Show in the USA, which is never above exploiting issues to attract viewers, had a segment today on the apparently virulent, OMG! OH NOES! reaction to a new host for one of the children's programs at the BBC. It's right on the home page today.
The woman, who seems friendly and sweet and is wholesome-looking in that way I've come to comfortably associate with UKers of British extraction, was born with basically only one and a half arms.
Cue the scary music, apparently. According to the Today Show (which I doubt is beyond exaggeration, either), cartloads of irate parents have been sending in e-mails and commenting on the BBC's forums about how awful this is, and that by this woman 'flaunting her disability' (sic) on the show, she will scare little children with her monstrosity and scar them for life. 'How can I explain to my three-year old why she only has one arm?' Wails one of the unhappy parents. Some of the messages were so cruel they had to be removed.
I am totally agog about this. Not just because, wow, this woman is only missing one part of her right arm, people! It's not like she's--gasp!--in a wheelchair of blind or was hideously disfigured in a fire or anything. I'm also astonished that this would happen in the UK. I mean, the UK banned slavery long before American considered it. It allowed same-sex unions before Canada did. I've never met so many animal-rights activists as I did when I was over there, nor seen so many couples on television where one of them wasn't white, and shown as if this was no big deal where it's still an issue in the States.
I honestly have no idea what would happen if there was a kids' show here (I mean 'here' by North America) with a host with the same kind of disability. I do know that when Barney and Friends was popular, there was at least one episode where the girl everyone was planning a welcome-back surprise party for also was missing part of one arm. The big deal on Barney was that her favourite colour was purple, but I honestly have no idea if her arm caused controversy. A quick check on imdb.com and wikipedia didn't bring up anything.
My guess, however, is that there would be a lot of similar nastiness. I'd like to say that Americans would be rabid about inclusiveness (as long as she wasn't gay), and Canadians would shrug and go on with their lives (the current Governor General of Ontario is disabled after all), but I also know that cruelty born of fear and ignorance doesn't have a monopoly on either side of the Channel.
We all seem much more liable to freak out about our kids' experiences than we do about our own. And I think that when we see things like this, when we're reminded of 'the other' in our midst, its hard to remember that not only are children more adaptable and resilient than we think they are, but they also haven't had the same chance to pick up on society's prejudices, or our own.
I do know for sure that if Javier were watching this program (and I might just download some episodes for him now), I'd explain why the host was different something like this: 'She was born that way. Sometimes people grow differently in their mommies' tummies, and don't come out with all the parts that children like you do'. And then I'd answer his questions, if he had any. It probably helps that Javier's dad is disabled as well, so that he understands that some people need special consideration. But his father doesn't look different, so I don't think that Javier really has any special understanding that any other child wouldn't.
But as the interviewees said on the Today Show, the problem isn't the children.