I first heard about this campaign a few weeks ago, and honestly, I was at something of a loss for words (hence, my not discussing it publicly until now). The images and messages associated with the campaign were apparently intended to "raise awareness" of childhood mental, psychological, and neurological issues (all carelessly lumped under the category of "psychiatric disorders", but anyway), including autism and Asperger's. Billboards were plastered all over New York, showing stark pictures of several different fake "ransom notes", one for each of the "featured" conditions -- with the emotional hook being the idea that the condition had kidnapped a child and taken him or her "hostage".
Now, believe me, I understand that when someone (child or adult) is having issues or struggling with something, it's good to see that they get whatever help they need. But merely intending to be helpful doesn't mean that whatever a person (or organization) does in the interest of fulfilling their intentions must be accepted uncritically. If you really want to help someone, it seems to me that you'd want their feedback as far as whether your efforts are actually working (or whether they're just making things worse)!
As Kathleen Seidel, parent activist and founder of neurodiversity.com, writes:
[Autistics also deal with] the very real challenges of navigating an environment in which they are bombarded with reminders of their presumed inadequacy and the tragedy and burden that their existence represents to their families and to society. All too many people feel free to characterize autistic people as living a "fate worse than death," as "never really there," as "kidnap victims" and "hollow shells."
The quote above was from a letter in response to a different media piece (that is, not the Ransom Notes campaign). But the message still holds true and remains relevant. If you want to help a group of people, the best way to do so is not to plaster entire cities with billboards that perpetuate oversimplifications, misconceptions, and negative stereotypes about that group of people.
I can't even imagine how horrible it would be to be a youngster living in New York right now, having to walk by all those billboards describing kids like me as "held hostage" by the very same brain differences which shape my strengths, my intense interests, and my ability to find joy in the seemingly mundane as much as they do my weaknesses.
The initial surge of outrage against the "Ransom Notes" campaign (which included an explanatory letter and petition started by the Autistic Advocacy Network) apparently took the NYU folks by surprise.
They initially defended the campaign as something that was merely "edgy" and designed to "cut through the clutter" of holiday advertising and draw people's attention to more important issues, but it seems that they eventually came to realize that the complaints were a shade more nuanced than simple expressions of "hurt feelings" (and there are few things more frustrating than trying to explain why something is unethical and damaging in a very real sense, only to have your critique dismissed as a complaint about "hurt feelings").
I was very pleased to learn earlier today that the NYU Child Study center was retracting the campaign in response to the huge outcry from various self-advocates, parents, disability-rights groups, and other concerned parties.
From the statement of retraction:
Though we meant well, we've come to realize that we unintentionally hurt and offended some people. We’ve read all the emails, both pro and con, listened to phone calls, and have spoken with many parents who are working day and night to get their children the help they need. We have decided to conclude this phase of our campaign today because the debate over the ads is taking away from the pressing day-to-day work we need to do to help children and their families. They are and remain our first concern.
I was even more heartened to see the following statement from Ari Ne'eman, President of the Autistic Advocacy Network (emphasis mine):
...having spoken directly with Dr. Harold Koplewicz, Director of the NYU Child Study Center, I have obtained a commitment to pursue real dialogue in the creation of any further ad campaign depicting individuals with disabilities. We applaud the NYU Child Study Center for hearing the voice of the disability community and withdrawing the "Ransom Notes" ad campaign.
Twenty-two disability rights organizations came together to ensure the withdrawal of this advertising campaign. Our response to this campaign stretched continents, with e-mails, letters and phone calls coming from as far away as Israel, Britain and Australia. The disability community acted with a unity and decisiveness that has rarely been heard before and we are seeing the results of our strength today. Our success sends an inescapable message: if you wish to depict people with disabilities, you must consult us and seek our approval. Anything less will guarantee that we will make our voices heard. We are willing to help anyone and any group that seeks to raise awareness of disability issues, but those efforts must be done with us, not against us.
I am tremendously grateful to Ari and the other individuals and organizations that have managed to accomplish the truly amazing feat of (hopefully) beginning to bridge the seemingly vast communication gap between organizations like the NYU Child Study Center and the people who live every day as "targets" of well-intentioned but often misguided "awareness campaigns".
As I see it, if you're going to do something from a position of authority which has the chance to shape the way certain other people are perceived and treated on a wide scale, you have an ethical responsibility to (a) get your facts straight, and (b) listen to the voices of people who your message is going to affect the most.
It remains to be seen what the results of the ensuing dialogue between NYU and the community of actual autistic/atypical/disabled people turn out to look like, but the fact that NYU is now at least willing to listen is quite encouraging.