Through Writing About Diversity, I’m Fighting for Inclusion – by Cerrie Burnell

Cerrie Burnell

As the sun beats down on London Fields and the trees cast leafy shadows, my daughter and I discover a park where every child is joyfully occupied by the wonder and mania of play. Kids fly and flutter in bright eyed swarms and the sense of excitement is so infectious that my little girl screams and bolts away from me, falling in with the pack. Even from the side lines I feel an urge to join them, to swing as high as the branches or throw myself at the hurtling roundabout with a fearless sense of abandon. But I’m an adult, a mummy and it’s not my time, so I linger in the shade and watch the wildness spread until it encompasses every child. The simplicity of this unity is both powerful and touching. I’m all for championing diversity, flagging up our differences and celebrating them with aplomb, but it’s lovely to be reminded that inclusion in its purest form is just about getting along with each other, in a way that’s not selective. In this inner-city playground where the average age is six, any defining labels a child might carry, have lost their significance in the wake of riotous fun.

I pull the packed roundabout to a halt so my daughter can clamber on and as it swings away, a small girl catches sight of me and starts to scream, “her arm’s missing, I don’t like it.” She yells and at once every bright eye fixes me in a swirling rainbow of irises. I’m not surprised by this reaction. I’ve had one hand all my life and it’s not something that fazes me, because what you must remember is, I was six once too and I was a delicate, imaginative blue-eyed girl, who dreamed of becoming a mermaid. My mum couldn’t keep flowers in the house, because I cried when ever they died. When the horse vanished beneath the quicksand in The Never Ending Story, I screamed so much we had to turn it off. But when it came to my arm I was untouchable, I waved peoples questions away as if they were spring butterflies and happily called out from the top of the slide “I was born like it”. That was the answer they got, no long description, no discussion, no explanation, but an offer of friendship and maybe some chips. I had no idea of the capacity of my own resilience, because it didn’t feel as if I was being resilient, it simply felt like life. People asked me questions, I called out answers, then we made friends and the world swung on. But now that I’m an adult even in a park in Hackney, an area that does diversity with a whole-hearted magnificence, it’s apparent that disability is the last difference to truly be embraced.

This is the main reason I decided to write a play about a little girl who has one hand. Not to exercise my ambitions in a way that’s cathartic or answers the questions of every child in that park, but to engage with a young audience and show them the many similarities that all children share. Libby, the little girl in the play, is as charming as she is difficult and though her circumstances are particular to her impairment: to realise her dream of becoming a ballerina she must learn to use a prosthetic arm, like most six year olds, she won’t be limited by anyone else’s boundaries and at the heart of it, is a wilful little girl who wants her own way. There isn’t a child on the planet who doesn’t know what that feels like! The wonderful thing about a young audience is that if you connect with them in a way that’s authentic and interactive you’ll keep them on your side and they’ll be happy to follow into a magical land where toys can talk and children can dream.

Before I can answer the little girl in the park, a single voice pipes up and takes everyone by surprise, “that girl with one hand is my mum.” Loud gasps and the bright eyes focus sharply on my daughter. I want to protect her but before I can act, another child recognises me and a whispering murmur arises as they try to ascertain if this tired, make-up free woman is the same person who bounces around their T.V screens. My daughter sits up straight, one hand on the bar of the roundabout, the other gently pointing toward me, her wrist turned up to the sky, “she’s on T.V, she was born with one hand and she’s my mummy.” My heart is suddenly in my mouth she didn’t need me at all, she was happy to bat away the questions like butterflies. Happy to be resilient in a way that’s so gentle it’s astonishing. The roundabout disbands and the kids shower me with questions about my life and my job. Even disability pales into insignificance beneath the spotlight of celebrity. Don’t misunderstand me, in no way do I consider myself to be a celebrity, but because my career is deemed exciting, interest in my arm wanes and the only thing any of the kids want to know is: How do you get out the back of the telly?

Pretty soon they all wonder away to play, apart from the little girl who initially screamed when she saw me, she wants to know how can I have a daughter when I don’t have a husband? At this point I distract her with a dandelion clock and take my own child to get an ice cream. That’s the thing about disability, it’s rarely the thing that defines you, and people are never just one story. They are a million different stories all woven into one and by telling Libby’s story, by showing all the wonderful things that complete her, I hope children experience a magical adventure, where having one hand is really not the most interesting thing.

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