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VTrans Pulls New Seat Belt Safety Ad After Disabled Community Voices Concern

Peter Hirschfeld
Critics were concerned that the spot which shows an accessible van, played on negative stereotypes of those who use wheelchairs to get around. Zachary Schmoll uses an accessible van to get to and from his job as an insurance underwriter in Barre Town.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation has decided to yank a new seat belt safety ad from the airwaves after critics of the spot say it reinforced negative stereotypes about people who use wheelchairs to move about the world.

The 30-second ad opens with a camera shot of a neighborhood street, and a voice-over of a conversation between a mother and her son. The mom is urging her kid to put a coat on before he heads out. “I’m 21,” the son says, insisting he can handle himself now.

Then he says, “my ride’s here – see ya,” at which point a maroon van pulls into the street shot, a retractable lift extending from an automatic door.

It’s for the son the viewer is to assume, who presumably uses a wheelchair. And then there’s this from the grave low voice of a male narrator:

“This is what independence could look like if you don’t wear your seat belt. Don’t risk it. Wear your seat belt.”

That happens to be a lot what independence looks like for Zachary Schmoll. The 24-year-old Orange resident has been using a wheelchair his whole life.

He first saw the ad on television Monday morning.

Credit Screenshot from VTran Ad
The new ad, which was posted to YouTube on May 16, 2016 shows a curb in a residential neighborhood, with a voiceover from a mother and son.

“And, in my mind I’m thinking, I’m living pretty well in a wheelchair,” Schmoll says.

Schmoll says he appreciates the message the Agency of Transportation is trying to send.

“Nobody wants people to not wear their seat belts – I mean we all understand that,” Schmoll says. But Schmoll says the ad perpetuates a mindset that people who use wheelchairs, or rely on accessible vans for transportation, are somehow less independent than people who don’t.

“It seems to imply that if you’re not able to drive your own car, somehow all of your independence is taken away,” Schmoll says.

Schmoll is living proof that that’s not the case. He uses an accessible van daily to get to and from his full time job as an insurance underwriter at New England Excess Exchange in Barre Town.

Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, says what’s so jarring about the ad is its depiction of an accessible van as a symbol of incapacity.

She says that’s exactly the kind of notion advocates like her are working so hard to dispel.

“When you see an accessible van, that’s something that is about independence for folks who have disabilities,” Launderville says.

"When we have an ad like this that kind of perpetuates some myths and stereotypes that you're less-than, it can have a snowball effect." — Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living

Launderville says pop-culture references that conflate wheelchairs or accessible vehicles with a lesser form of independence fuel harmful perceptions.

“When we have an ad like this that kind of perpetuates some myths and stereotypes that you’re less-than, it can have a snowball effect,” Launderville says.

Launderville says those myths and stereotypes are one of the reasons why the unemployment rate for Vermonters with disabilities is above 35 percent. She says the access barriers people with disabilities face – be they lack of access to buildings, or curbs cuts on sidewalks, are easy to visualize and understand.

“One of the thigs that doesn’t get talked about as much is the attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face,” Launderville says. “But when you’re just not offered a job over and over and over again, that’s when you know that there’s still something behind this that we have to deal with.”

"In this case, we felt there here was a risk of the message being lost, and that we did not want to make people feel uncomfortable or unhappy as a result of our messaging." — Scott Davidson, chief of the Governor’s Highway Safety Team

Scott Davidson, chief of the Governor’s Highway Safety Team, and says the state worked with a communications firm called HMC Advertising in Richmond to produce the ad. He says the state was trying a new messaging strategy to reach the 18- to 34-year-old male demographic that’s statistically least likely to wear their seat belts.

“And that new direction in this case was to convey the risk of receiving a serious life-altering injury as a result of not being buckled up,” Davidson says. 

When concerns and criticism over the spot began arriving at the agency Monday, Davidson says it didn’t take long for the state to decide to pull the ad.

“And in this case we felt there here was a risk of the message being lost, and that we did not want to make people feel uncomfortable or unhappy as a result of our messaging, so we decided to suspend the messaging,” Davidson says.

Northfield Rep. Anne Donahue was among the first people to raise concerns with the agency about the ad.

“I was sort of stunned the minute I saw it,” Donahue says.

Donahue has been involved in the disability advocacy community for years. She says she thinks the “message was intended in all the most positive ways.” But she says the takeaway for most viewers is that having to use a wheelchair makes like a terrible experience.

“Oh my gosh, you lose your independence. Look at how horrible this is,” Donahue says. “I think it’s part of that misunderstanding and that message that becomes, someone has some sort of a disability, they are less able.”

Donahue says she called Secretary of Transportation Chris Cole on Monday to express her concerns. Five minutes later, Donahue says, he called her back to tell her they’re pulling the ad.

“I think that’s a wonderful indicator of the greater degree of understanding and sensitivity that we have as a culture,” she says.

Donahue says it’s a culture that gives her hope in the possibility that society will one day resolve its biases toward people with disabilities.

Launderville says she’s also impressed with the way the agency handled the situation. And Davidson says he plans to reach out to groups like the Vermont Center for Independent Living to vet similar ads in the future. He says the state plans to overhaul the seatbelt spot and reintroduce it to the airwaves in a different form in the future.

This post was edited at 8:23 a.m. on 5/27/16 to include comments from Rep. Ann Donahue

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