The autism community has gained solidarity - among many of its own organizations and those that involve other disabilities - in response to New York University's "Ransom Notes" campaign.
For those of you who have not yet seen the ads being featured as part of this campaign, please take a moment to view them here...
Read the notes - no really, go read them - allow your natural emotional response to surface. If I set all personal experience with autism aside for a moment and take a fresh look - seeing these "notes", I feel a sense of panic, of a wrong having been committed. That I need to rush to the defense of someone, perhaps come up with some cash to solve the problem. There is an implication of crime, of guilt. A need for swift justice.
I can only speak for my own son when I say ... he doesn't need this kind of publicity.
In an astonishingly misguided effort to raise awareness on Autism, Asperger's, Bulimia, ADHD, Depression, and OCD, the NYU Child Study Center has unwittingly produced precisely the result their campaign was 'designed' to combat. The response to these notes, as desired by the ad agency who developed the theme, is powerful and visceral. But it produces the wrong response. Instead of reducing stigma associated with these dosorders, it reinforces the stigma.
In a remarkable display of unity, the blogging community has stepped forward in an attempt to help provide a unified response to this egregious affront to people affected by the aforementioned group of disorders. Much of the work in doing so has been borne by one Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autism Self Advocacy Network.
Ari prepared and delivered what I consider to be an excellent response to the leaders at NYU. His response acknowledges their good intentions, but clearly and appropriately spells out just exactly why the 'Ransom Notes' campaign has been met with such resistance within the autism community. Since Ari has done such a great job of reflecting my own thoughts on the subject, I need only to shut up at this point and post his letter here.
Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D.
The NYU Child Study Center
577 First Avenue
New York, NY 10016
Dr. Robert Grossman, M.D.
NYU School of Medicine
560 First Avenue
New York NY 10016
President and CEO of BBDO New York
BBDO New York
1285 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10019
Richard Schaps, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Van Wagner Communications, LLC.
800 Third Ave 28th Floor
New York, NY 10022
To the NYU Child Study Center and the supporters of the “Ransom Notes” advertising
We, the undersigned organizations, are writing to you regarding your new ad campaign
for the NYU Child Study Center: “Ransom Notes”. Our organizations represent people
with a wide range of disabilities, including those portrayed in your campaign, as well as
family members, professionals and others whose lives are affected by disabilities. As
people who live and work with disability, we cannot help but be concerned by the way
your campaign depicts individuals with disabilities. By choosing to portray people on the
autism spectrum as well as those living with OCD, ADHD and other disabilities as
kidnapped or possessed children, you have inadvertently reinforced many of the worst
stereotypes that have prevented children and adults with disabilities from gaining
inclusion, equality and full access to the services and supports they require.
While the “Ransom Notes” campaign was no doubt a well-intentioned effort to increase
awareness and thus support for the disabilities it describes, the means through which it
attempts this have the opposite effect. When a child with ADHD is described as “a
detriment to himself and those around him,” it hurts the efforts of individuals, parents and
families to ensure inclusion and equal access throughout society for people with
disabilities. When individuals with diagnoses of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are
told that their capacities for social interaction and independent living are completely
destroyed, it hurts their efforts for respect, inclusion, and necessary supports by spreading
misleading and inaccurate information about these neurologies. While it is true that there
are many difficulties associated with the disabilities you describe, individuals with those
diagnostic categories do succeed – not necessarily by becoming indistinguishable from
their non-disabled peers – but by finding ways to maximize their unique abilities and
potential on their own terms.
The “Ransom Notes” campaign places a stigma on both parents and children, thus
discouraging them from pursuing a diagnosis that might be helpful in gaining access to
the appropriate services, supports, and educational tools. The autism spectrum should be
recognized for what it is: a lifelong neurological condition – not a kidnapper that steals
children in the dead of the night. The devaluation of the lives of people with disabilities
has led to public policies and funding decisions that have forced thousands of people with
disabilities into nursing homes and other institutions. The unintended consequences of ad
campaigns like yours give legitimacy to the taking away of the civil and human rights of
people with disabilities.
It is true that diagnoses of ADHD, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and OCD often
accompany great hardships for families. It is true that depression and bulimia are terrible
disorders that require treatment. Yet, the way you choose to convey those messages is
inappropriate and counterproductive. Individuals with disabilities are not replacements
for normal children that are stolen away by the disability in question. They are whole
people, deserving of the same rights, respect, and dignity afforded their peers. Too often,
the idea that children with disabilities are less than human lies at the heart of horrific
crimes committed against them. The recent tragic instances of violence against children
and adults on the autism spectrum and with other developmental disabilities are linked to
the perception that these people are less than human. We – the adults, families,
professionals and others affected by these conditions - assert that nothing could be further
from the truth.
We are also concerned that the negative stereotypes the “Ransom Notes” campaign
depicts could make it harder for the many people with disabilities and their family
members who are working to ensure that students with disabilities have the right to be
included in their home schools while still receiving all necessary services. Federal law
mandates that students with disabilities have the right to a “free and appropriate public
education” in the “least restrictive environment”. Your advertising campaign claims that
children with disabilities could be a detriment to those around them and as a result hurts
the efforts of parents working to secure the opportunity for their children to be included
with their peers.
While we recognize and applaud the good intentions intended by this effort, we must
urge you to withdraw this campaign immediately, as it threatens to harm the very people
whom it seeks to benefit: people with disabilities, their families, and their supporters. In
the press release announcing this campaign, the Center gave as one of its goals
“eliminating the stigma of being or having a child with a psychiatric disorder”. We are in
full agreement with the goal of eliminating stigma against people with disabilities and
their families. Yet, this campaign serves to increase that stigma rather than lessen it. We
hope that you will heed our concerns and those of many other people with disabilities,
family members, professionals, and countless others and end the “Ransom Notes”
Please do not to hesitate to contact any of the organizations listed as signatories to this
letter in order to better solicit the opinions of the disability community prior to your next
advertising campaign. We would be more than glad to help the Center to develop better
strategies to achieve its excellent goals. The NYU Child Study Center has the potential to
do enormous good for children and families affected by disability. By showing that the
Center respects the views of people with disabilities, families, and professionals, you can
make that aspiration a reality.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey
ADA and the National Coalition for Disability Rights
Janette R. Vance
The Family Alliance to Stop Abuse and Neglect
The Autism Acceptance Project
Barbara Trader, MS
Autism Network International
Not Dead Yet
Director of Independent Living Services.
MOCEANS Center for Independent Living
Ethan B. Ellis, Executive Director
Alliance for Disabled in Action, Inc.
Next Step, Inc.
Asperger Association of New England
Member, Board of Directors
Autism National Committee