Monday, August 17, 2009

Billboard Campaign Withdrawn

ASAN sent a letter to the Autism Society of York, Pennsylvania yesterday after we became aware that ASA-York was running a billboard campaign describing Autistic children as "kidnapped." We explained that such language was harmful because it could increase fear and stigma. Amy Wallace, President of ASA-York, responded promptly to our concerns and those of others in the community, agreeing to remove the billboards. (Edit: Media coverage can be found here.)

A brief message from ASAN President Ari Ne'eman appears below:


Only a few hours after our letter and thanks to the hard work of bloggers like Joe at Club 166, Abfh, Cracked Mirror in Shalott and others who wrote in and called about the billboard campaign, ASA-York has agreed to pull the billboards. This is a sign of the importance of working together as a community to address issues like this. A year and a half ago, it took the combined strength of 21 disability organizations from across the country to have our voices be heard on a billboard campaign not dissimilar to this one. Today, our community's reputation for action and ethics has grown to the point where we can bring about change much more rapidly. This should serve as a reminder of the importance of a strong, united Autistic community with a clear moral vision of a better future for Autistic people. Small victories like this remind us of what we can accomplish by working as one community on issues of every kind and size. Thank you to everyone who took action and in particular to the members of the blogosphere who first rallied the community around this. I encourage people to write to ASA-York's President Amy Wallace at Amy Wallace to express your appreciation for their swift action to remove unethical advertising and to encourage them to work with the Autistic community in the future.


Ari Ne'eman
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Join the Disability Community Response to the NY Times

Disability rights activist Stephen Drake of Not Dead Yet wrote the following joint letter, to which ASAN is a signatory, protesting the recent decision of the NY Times Magazine to print an article by Peter Singer that advocated denying health care to people with disabilities. Those who wish to sign the letter individually may do so by email as stated below:

Please read this sign-on letter and consider signing on if you agree with it. If you would like to add your signature to this letter to Gerald Marzorati, Editor of NY Times Magazine send your name and email to by 12 noon EST Monday August 10, 2009.

I apologize for the short notice and the insufficient formatting, but please check out the original at:

From the JFA Moderator: The following letter was composed by Not Dead Yet in collaboration with the JFA Action Network with the first signers listed below. We are seeking additional signers. If you would like to add your signature to this letter to Gerald Marzorati, Editor of NY Times Magazine send your name and email to by 12 noon EST Monday August 10, 2009.
In response to Singer rationing:

Dear Mr. Marzorati:

Was it the New York Times Magazine’s intention to assault or diminish the basic tenets of the disability community's civil rights law virtually on the eve of its 19th anniversary? The New York Times Magazine’s decision to publish Peter Singer's latest long essay entitled 'Why We Must Ration Health Care' (7/15/09) less than two weeks before the anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act demonstrates either deliberate malice or reckless disregard of the reality of disability as an important demographic representative of nearly 20% of the American population.

As anyone who has read ‘Why We Must Ration Health Care’ knows, Singer spoke “hypothetically” of assigning a life with quadriplegia as roughly half that of a life without any disability at all. On this “hypothetical” basis, Singer lays out a case for denying health care to people with significant disabilities on the basis that our lives have less value than the lives of nondisabled people.

This is Peter Singer’s most direct assault on the value of the lives of people with physical disabilities past the age of infancy that we have read. His policy proposals allowing for the killing of newborns with disabilities and people with significant cognitive disabilities are already well known.

While this is a bolder assault than we have seen from Professor Singer in the past, it’s hardly surprising. What’s surprising and deeply disturbing is that the NY Times editorial staff have sought him out as a writer on more than one occasion.

To be fair, the NY Times Magazine has published some excellent articles in the past that have covered the disability experience as more than a mere medical issue. The late Harriet McBryde Johnson had several thoughtful articles published in the NY Times Magazine describing the historical oppression directed at people with disabilities, contrasted with the wonderful opportunities that unfold if that oppression is lifted. When Harriet died, many of us were taken aback when the NY Times Magazine editors passed over Harriet’s friends and colleagues to write an end-of-year tribute in the year she died. That honor was bestowed on Professor Singer. Perhaps we should have taken that as a sign of things to come.

Reluctantly, we have to suspect that the NY Times Magazine accepted this piece because of its content, agreeing with Singer that our lives have lessened value and that we represent a drain on the collective economic and health care resources of our country. It’s hard to imagine the NY Times Magazine green-lighting an article that targeted any other group in such a way – e.g. immigrants, the poor, or other groups who have been targeted as scapegoats in the health care debates. Did the editor in charge of publishing this issue even notice that Singer used no factual information at all to support his devaluation of people with disabilities?

We have to wonder what went through the heads of the editorial staff when they thought about the reactions of readers – with or without disabilities – to the large graphic that read “__ YEARS OF A NONDISABLED LIFE IS WORTH __ YEARS OF A DISABLED LIFE.”

Contrast this with Senator Edward Kennedy’s essay on the fight for universal healthcare in the current issue of Newsweek. Talking about people with disabilities he said, in part:

Social justice is often the best economics. We can help disabled Americans who want to live in their homes instead of a nursing home. Simple things can make all the difference, like having the money to install handrails or have someone stop by and help every day.

Obviously, the definitions of justice that Senator Kennedy uses are very different from the definitions favored by Peter Singer and the NY Times Magazine.

Without using the term, Senator Kennedy is also describing the social model of disability. In the traditional medical model of disability, the “problems” of disability are all situated within the person. The medical model defines people with disabilities as having a lower “quality of life” than their nondisabled peers. In reality, most of the limitations put on people with disabilities are socially defined – and can be remediated in the same way. The Americans with Disabilities Act is built on the principles of that social model, acknowledging that disability is a natural part of life and that society has to reflect that reality in an inclusive and supportive way.

The proposed treatment – or nontreatment – of people with disabilities also violates the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was signed by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. She signed the Convention on July 30th at the direction of President Obama. While the Singer essay violates the spirit and vision of the Convention in numerous ways, the most pertinent section of the document is spelled out in Article 25(f), which obligates signatories to “prevent discriminatory denial of health care or health services or food and fluids on the basis of disability.” This is important. Article 4(d) states that countries that have signed the Convention agree to “refrain from engaging in any act or practice that is inconsistent with the present Convention.”

The American disability community, Senator Kennedy and an ever-growing majority of the international community all recognize that public policy has to embrace the inherent equality of the lives of people with disabilities – and public policy must reflect that in practice. The NY Times Magazine and Professor Singer stand opposed to the more progressive voices of social justice, inside and outside of the United States.

We, the undersigned, protest this treatment of people with disabilities within one of the most important public policy debates in our time. The New York Times Magazine has failed in its public responsibility to treat citizens of the United States with the simple respect we deserve by serving up people with disabilities as a drain on public resources and to legitimize the denial of medical care to those of us who need that support the most.

The editorial staff of the New York Times Magazine needs to meet with representatives of disability advocacy groups, with the following goals:

1. The NY Times staff needs to define and clarify its understanding of disability as a basic human rights issue.
2. If the current stance of the NY Times is that the lives of people with disabilities are, in fact, a drain on health care sources, it should be stated on record.
3. Discuss training in the basics of covering disability in news stories – beyond the “human interest” and “medical” angles.
4. Cover the difference between “analysis” and “appealing to bigotry” in public policy discussions.


ADAPT of Montana
American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD)
Disabilities Network of NYC
Little People of America
MetroWest Center for Independent Living
National Coalition of MH Consumer/Survivor Organizations
National Association of the Deaf
National Council on Independent Living
Not Dead Yet
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network
The Center for Self-Determination
Topeka Independent Living Resource Center

Stephen Drake
Research Analyst
Not Dead Yet
497 State St
Rochester, NY 14608-1642