Anna Stubblefield, the chairwoman of Rutgers-Newark’s philosophy department, and an outspoken proponent of “facilitated communication,” is accused of abusing a severely mentally disabled 33-year-old man that she was using as proof of her claim that FC works.
Spoiler: It doesn’t.
Today, Stubblefield, 44, is facing criminal charges of aggravated sexual assault for allegedly molesting D.J. repeatedly in her Newark offices in 2011. She’s been placed on administrative leave without pay, university officials say.
And she’s facing a civil lawsuit filed in federal court by D.J.’s mother and brother, who say she used D.J. as a “guinea pig” to advance her cause. They cast her suggestion that D.J. could communicate through her as “a farce” and are seeking an unspecified amount in damages.
The pending criminal case, should it go to trial as expected in the coming months, promises to be a referendum on facilitated communication, a technique dogged by controversy almost from the moment it was first publicly identified in the 1990s.
The “facilitated communication” process consists of the “facilitator” holding the hand of the subject over the computer keyboard (or used with conventional writing means) and moving the hand to the keys. The facilitator is said to be guided to the keys through the sense of touch. In this way, the subject appears to be able to communicate in a very high level not previously seen.
James Randi, who investigated the technique called it a “cruel farce”. People are led to believe that their disabled loved ones can communicate (far beyond their cognitive means). It’s a mean deception that gives false hope.
The technique was introduced in the United States in 1990 by Dr. Douglas Bicklen, a professor of special education at Syracuse University who believed this was a way for autistic people to express themselves in a way they could not physically achieve normally. When used with a willing facilitator, autistic and severely people type out quotes like “I love Mom.”, etc.
When tested, it utterly fails. Clearly and decisively. Fails.
This Frontline episode aired in 1993 and definitively proved FC did not work as stated. FRONTLINE: previous reports: transcripts: prisoners of silence | PBS.
Yet, the belief in it is SO powerful that it continues to be used despite the fact that it’s bogus.
In this case, Stubblefield admitted she had sexual relations with the man. There are criminal charges against her as well as a civil lawsuit from the man’s family. A hearing will take place Thursday to decide if more tests are needed to determine the extent of the man’s ability to communicate. The question is if the man gave consent through FC. The dispute will be regarding the communication method which is still vigorously defended by some. From the scientific viewpoint, this is no contest, no matter what people want to believe about it. Fervent belief does not mean something is true.