BBC documentary Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain uncovers how disabled people were shut out of society for decades

Cerrie Burnell uncovers the shocking story of how disabled people in Britain were shut out of society for decades – and how they fought back.

“To some people I will always be remembered as the woman on children’s television with one hand.” When Cerrie Burnell landed a presenting job on CBeebies, it was a dream come true, but she soon faced criticism and scorn from parents – born without the lower part of her right arm, some viewers thought her appearance would ‘scare’ children. 

Now, in Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain, Cerrie uncovers where these prejudices came from and why they persist today. She sheds light on how a group who had been (and in many ways continue to be) shut out of society fought back and won their human rights.

Over the course of an hour Cerrie takes us on a journey through the past to parts of history that many, especially non-disabled people, don’t know about. It’s a shameful part of Britain’s past that started during the industrial revolution, a time when disabled people were locked up in institutions “for the feeble minded” and prevented from having children.

Cerrie Burnell
Cerrie Burnell

The truth of how British society mistreated disabled people over the last 200 years is interspersed with Cerrie’s own story of the barriers she faced. These barriers were all created by non-disabled people who wanted her do things she was uncomfortable with, such as wear a prosthetic lower arm, in order to hide her disability. You relive the sadness with her when she talks about how a doctor told her at six years old: “Well the other children might not like it, or you might have any friends”.

As well as her personal story, there are other tales of heartbreak and cruelty which lift the lid on how  – although the intentions of institutionalising disabled young people appeared honourable – they were inspired by a sinister cause. We learn that founder of the first institutions, Mary Dendy, was a supporter of the eugenics movement, so her homes sought to stop disabled people breeding to end disability. It was deeply saddening to watch Cerrie talk about how if she was born earlier this could have been her fate.

It’s difficult to watch Anne Mcfarlane describe the torturous treatments that were forced on her to try and ‘fix’ her swollen stiff legs caused by Stills Disease, which saw her suffer through having her legs broken, put in plaster to straighten them and broken over and over again for five years. 

The final part of the show focusses on activism and Cerrie meets some of the pioneers of the disability rights movement

 John Evans became insitutionalised after an accident left him paralysed. His time in hospital and a residential home made him realise that many disabled people have no involvement in decisions about their own lives. His activism led to more disabled people organising and fighting for civil rights.

It took 15 years from the initial protests for the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 to be made into law and even longer for the Equality Act to pass in 2010 which solidified the rights of disabled people. Unfortunately though, as the show reflects, attitudes and rights of disabled people are not a given. With austerity damaging disabled people and six in ten of all Covid-19 deaths being disabled people, the documentary is a reminder that the fight isn’t over.

As a disabled person I found the documentary uncomfortable to watch, there were several moments where I had to take a breath for a moment to stop myself spiralling into despair at the way disabled people were treated. But, I was left with one message – we cannot go back.

Silenced: The Hidden History of Disabled Britain airs on BBC Two, 19 January at 9pm and is available on iPlayer shortly after

Images: BBC/Blast!Films/Kate Scholefield