“Public Education” about PWDs hits new low with “Ransom Notes” campaign

As I was busy digging my way through my accumulated email and phone messages this week, I got a call from Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).

Ari was looking for sign-ons to a letter protesting a new “public education” effort launched by the N.Y.U. Child Study Center. The campaign is titled “Ransom Notes.” In billboards, magazine ads, and kiosks, The “Ransom Notes” campaign features pictures of hand-written notes, looking like a ransom note from some b-movie.

Here’s an example of the text of one of the “ransom notes”:

We have your son. We will make sure he will no longer be able to care for himself or interact socially as long as he lives. This is only the beginning…Autism.

There’s nothing especially new about this approach to dealing scaremongering and objectifying people with disabilities. The metaphor of the “stolen child” has a long and ugly history in autism literature.

BTW, the Child Study Center claims it wants to reduce stigma for children with various disabilities. They haven’t really explained how that goal meshes with this current ad campaign.

To make a long story short, we signed onto the letter (text below).

If you want to know more about the ad campaign, you can check it all out for yourself at this site. There are images and descriptions of each “ransom note.”

As I said, the letter from ASAN is below. If you agree with it, you can sign on as an individual – or organization- through this link to a petition.

Enough. Here’s the letter:

To: NYU Medical Center
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 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.


Ari Ne’eman
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Bob Kafka
National Organizer ADAPT

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
Member, Board of Directors
Autism National Committee