Anna Stubblefield, an ex-Rutgers University Professor of Philosophy, was convicted in 2015 of the rape of an intellectually and physically disabled man after falsely obtaining his consent for sex via a technique known as Facilitated Communication (FC).
Stubblefield was originally sentenced for 12 years, but recently her conviction was overturned on appeal. After pleading guilty to reduced charges, Stubblefield was sentenced this month to time served, lifetime parole supervision and placement on a sex offender registry.
While this strange story might seem unique, it is just the latest that we know of in a long history of adverse events related to the use of FC.
How is FC meant to work?
FC, also called supported typing, is a technique in which a person called a “facilitator” provides physical support to a person with a disability in an attempt to help them point to pictures, printed letters or words on an alphabet board or keyboard.
Typically, the “facilitator” holds or touches the person’s hand, arm, back, or other part of the person’s body during typing. This is supposedly “stabilising” support, meant to allow the person with a disability to use slight movements.
However, FC is pseudoscientific, and its use is unethical. Controlled tests of FC in research and in legal cases have shown that the facilitator is, even subconsciously, authoring the person’s message.
How did FC become widespread?
FC was initially a local phenomenon in Australia in the 1980s. It might have stayed that way, but Dr Douglas Biklen of Syracuse University embraced it, promoted it in the Harvard Educational Review, and created the “Facilitated Communication Institute” (recently re-named the Institute for Communication and Inclusion).
A form of automatic writing, FC gives the false impression that the disabled person is doing the typing. Despite anecdotal reports that it works, a simple “blinded” picture naming test is all it takes to reveal the true author. In such a test, the facilitator is not aware of the answers to questions asked of the person with disability. Over 30 studies of this type have found no convincing evidence that messages delivered using FC are authored by the person with a disability.
There are several other communication technologies and strategies now available to enable a person with a disability to get their message across. These technologies are called Augmentative and Alternative Communication and include a variety of switches that people can use if they have difficulty using their hands.
What harm can it do?
There’s a long history of harms relating to FC, and it makes the news for all the wrong reasons. US businesswoman Gigi Jordan was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder of her son with autism on the basis of a message delivered using FC.
Apart from FC being a clear violation of the disabled person’s communication rights, FC related criminal cases often involve family members being falsely accused of sexual abuse. Jose Cordero of Florida is the most recent innocent person known to be imprisoned as a result of false allegations of sexual abuse delivered via FC. His name can be added to a growing list that includes the Wheatons, Julian Wendrow, and Mark and Laura Storch. The Wendrows won more than US$6 million in law suits.
It’s not possible to know how many more people with disabilities who use FC are currently being abused sexually through falsely giving consent to sex, but we do know of one other case similar to Stubblefield’s. In Australia in 2014, Martina Susanne Schweiger, a disability support worker received a suspended jail sentence for indecent dealings with a person with an impairment, brought about as a result of the messages delivered by FC.
Five good reasons to ‘keep your hands off’ FC
FC is not a valid form of communication. It gives only the illusion of communication and denies people with disabilities access to their human rights of autonomy, self-determination, and freedom of expression.
FC can mask the true nature, identity, and character of the disabled person.
FC is a pseudoscientific technique that comes with the risk of inflicting great harms on disabled people, family members, and teachers through false allegations of sexual abuse, false consent for sex, or other crimes. Several professional associations worldwide have warned against its use.
FC can also harm the facilitator. The discovery that it is the facilitator who is doing the typing can be devastating and confusing. Like Stubblefield and Jordan, any facilitator could be imprisoned for acting upon wrongful decisions made on the basis of using FC.
FC costs families of persons with disabilities valuable money and time and removes opportunities for them to access appropriate treatments that work, including Augmentative and Alternative Communication and Applied Behaviour Analysis.
A right to communicate
We live in a time of extraordinary technological advancements, where people like Stephen Hawking are able to independently control computers to communicate. It is unnecessary to use facilitator-dependent techniques that have no merit and that are genuinely considered junk science.
In order to counter the myths of FC, it’s important to that people with communication disability, parents, professionals and disability organisations have appropriate access to evidence-based interventions. Closing the significant service gaps for people with communication disability – who need access to appropriately trained professionals – might be part of the solution to avoiding the harms of FC and replacing FC with treatments that work.