Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

NYU Ransom Notes Ads: Public Outrage

We have your ignorant and ill-conceived advertising campaign, which is a detriment to itself and society. We are making sure that when people search the Internet for information about it, they will find nothing but a deluge of furious condemnation on blogs and forums. We're also posting links everywhere to an online petition protesting the ads. If you fail to provide appropriate remediation and a prompt public apology, we will make sure you no longer have the respect of any decent people and will be driven into a life of complete isolation. Do nothing and see what happens.

— Public Outrage

Or, worded a bit more diplomatically in a joint letter from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and thirteen other disability rights organizations:


The following letter was mailed and hand-delivered to the NYU Child Study Center on December 11th, 2007. It is co-signed by fourteen premier disability rights organizations, including ASAN, ADAPT, TASH, ADA Watch and the National Coalition for Disability Rights, the Autism National Committee and many more. In it, we urge the Center to withdraw its offensive "Ransom Notes" advertising campaign, which stigmatizes people with disabilities and misinforms the public. As some of you have already heard from our previous communications on this topic, the advertising campaign is expected to garner 700 million impressions over the next four months, requiring us to act quickly to stop grave damage to the public perception of people with disabilities.

As several others have indicated an interest in joining our statement in response to the "Ransom Notes" advertising campaign, we are encouraging organizations to issue letters endorsing the joint statement and send them to the supporters of the "Ransom Notes" campaign, urging them to withdraw the offensive advertising. Contact information for all of the supporters of the "Ransom Notes" campaign is available
here on ASAN's website. We will also be making available in the next day or so a petition for individuals to sign to express their support for the disability community's efforts. We urge individuals and groups to indicate their support now for the joint statement of fourteen disability rights organizations on this topic directly by contacting the NYU Child Study Center by e-mail at Harold.Koplewicz@nyumc.org or by phone at 212-263-6205.

Thank you so much to everyone who has already written and called to protest the "Ransom Notes" campaign over the course of the past few days and for those who will do so for as long as it takes to show that the disability community will not stand for advertising that questions the humanity of people with disabilities. We will be keeping you informed as we continue to mobilize the disability community against these hurtful and unfortunate statements. Your support is what keeps the disability community strong.

Ari Ne'eman
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, President


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
IRM 229
560 First Avenue
New York NY 10016

John Osborn
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 campaign:

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" advertising campaign.

Please do not 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.


Ari Ne'eman
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Bob Kafka
National Organizer

Diane Autin
Executive Co-Director
Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey

Jim Ward
ADA and the National Coalition for Disability Rights

Janette R. Vance
The Family Alliance to Stop Abuse and Neglect

Estee Klar-Wolfond
The Autism Acceptance Project

Barbara Trader, MS
Executive Director

Jim Sinclair
Autism Network International

Stephen Drake
Not Dead Yet

Stanley Soden
Director of Independent Living Services
MOCEANS Center for Independent Living

Ethan B. Ellis
Executive Director
Alliance for Disabled in Action, Inc.
President Next Step, Inc.

Phil Schwarz
Vice President
Asperger Association of New England

Sharisa Kochmeister
Autism National Committee

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  • may I copy/paste this to my blog?

    By Blogger Amanda, at 9:41 AM  

  • I see they've redesigned their page (www.aboutourkids.org/about_us/public_awareness)
    and even added "For comments on the campaign, send an Email to csc.comments@nyumc.org."
    I'd recommend *adding* this address to the many provided by ASAN at http://www.autisticadvocacy.org/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=21, not just using it exclusively.

    By Blogger jypsy, at 10:14 AM  

  • I would also like to re-publish this post on Alex's Runman Blog, along with this poster of Bev's.

    By Blogger jypsy, at 10:21 AM  

  • Amanda and jypsy -- yes, you certainly may repost this. ASAN and the other organizations that signed on to the letter would like to see it reposted as widely as possible.

    I've passed on the suggestion about adding the comment address to Ari.

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:39 AM  

  • Thank you, it's here

    By Blogger jypsy, at 11:50 AM  

  • thanks abfh! the post is up.

    By Blogger Amanda, at 11:58 AM  

  • Another possible angle:


    Dear New York University,

    I have kidnapped your wonderful Child Study Center. With my lurid imagery and dehumanizing rhetoric, I am busy alienating and enraging all the children and families your Center was supposed to help. I am demolishing the reputations of your esteemed faculty and staff, and arrogantly spreading fear and loathing in the name of "compassion" everywhere I go.

    Do nothing ... and see what happens.

    -- The "Ransom Notes" Campaign


    Now I need a bunch of magazines and a pair of scissors ...


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:52 AM  

  • dkmnow, you should so fax that to them. It's beautiful.

    By Blogger Neurodivergent K, at 7:02 PM  

  • Aren't some of the protesters almost as negative in their thinking about AS as the people who wrote the "Ransom Notes"?

    This is a quote from the open letter that went with the petition:

    "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."

    This usage of the commonly-used and politically correct "living with" description of people who have conditions such as autism or AS is really almost as negative a way of thinking about AS and autism as the personification of autistic conditions as kidnappers. Is it really much of an improvement to portray Asperger syndrome as a dislikeable alter ego or troublesome lodger in a back room, or a disease that one simply has to "learn to live with" (like diabetes or piles) rather than portraying AS as a kidnapper? There really isn't much difference, is there? It is commonplace to read references to people "living with Asperger syndrome" or "living with autism", rather than seeing an acknowledgement that autism is INSEPERABLE from the autist's mind and personality. Why aren't you also taking issue with this "living with" way of thinking about the autistic spectrum?

    All of you bloggers, who are supposed to be so outspoken and bold, are any of you brave enough to suggest that depicting some disorders, such as bulimia, depression and OCD, as kidnappers is NOT an unjustifiably negative way to portray the realities of these conditions?

    By Blogger Lili Marlene, at 9:58 PM  

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