Sexual Ableism, Facilitated Communication and Anna Stubblefield

It’s a story that the disability world has been following for months, if not years. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Review of Books published my thoughts about the Anna Stubblefield case, facilitated communication, sexual ableism, and the need for more complexity about disability in our rhetorics and our courts. Please read it:

I try to do a few things in this piece, mostly about the case, but want to highlight this side note about Facilitated Communication. Here is where I stand:

1. Facilitated communication received so much of the coverage, much of it nuanced, some of it despicably awful. The scandals from the 90s were real and terrible. But they weren’t worse than the “talk therapy” scandals in which children “recovered memories” of abuse that never happened. Somehow, talk therapy remains a fine method, untarnished by the earlier disaster. FC has never recovered.

In fact, FC’s scandals and talk-therapy recovered memory scandals seem much to me the same thing. Only everyone knows abled children can in fact speak for themselves, and many non-verbal disabled individuals are regarded as less than human.

2. I know people who use independent typing, and before that, they used facilitated typing. When they used FC, they’ve now reported independently, they were communicating for themselves. Therefore, at least some people must get to FC and are able to progress to independent typing, but are still communicating. This is a complicated string of conclusions, I suppose, but I don’t see how it’s arguable.

3. FC is still a vehicle for dangerous wish fulfillment. Parents and caregivers will continue to want to “cure” their children and discover the “normal child” hidden within. Any technology, therapy, or other intervention (think autism “cures”) trying to find the neurotypical within the neurodiverse is extremely dangerous. FC is at its worst when advocates said – there’s a fully normal person in there we just need to find! FC is at its best when it becomes a tool for a neurodiverse person to communicate as themselves, not as typical society wants them to be.

I spoke to a mom not long ago whose son is actually a lovely communicator with words, jargon, signs, and speech devices. At age 3, she did convince herself that he could spell, but it was the ideomotor effect, leading her to spell for him. At age 9, he’s communicating very well for himself. Both of these things can be true at the same time.

At any rate, I packed everything I could into this short essay, and thank you for staying with me.

Here’s an excerpt. Please read the whole:

What really happened between Stubblefield and D.J. is impossible to know. In the trial, D.J. was paraded into court by his family and his prosecutor, but the judge decided that the jury would not be allowed to see or hear him use FC to testify on his own behalf, accepting the opinion of psychologists that D.J. was mentally incompetent and therefore incapable of consent. The whole question of what is competence, intelligence, and communication lay at the heart of the case, but the judge refused to allow such questions in his courtroom. Instead, he declared D.J. “mentally defective,” based on New Jersey Title 2C:14-2 Sexual Assault. He rendered D.J. merely an object to consider, rather than a person who had something to say. At that point, the verdict was more or less assured.

The refusal to consider even the possibility that D.J. might be a person, able to move, to communicate, to desire, to consent, solidified the single story of the worst-case scenario. The jury accepted this narrative, grafting their own ideas about the undesirability of disability onto D.J.’s body. Reporter Bill Wichert interviewed a juror who “couldn’t understand” the relationship between Stubblefield and D.J. once she saw D.J. in court. “I was like … ‘You’re going to leave your husband and your kids for someone like this?’”

Side note: As possible, I’ll be encouraging people to tweet today my panel on medieval disability studies under the hashtag #MAA2016 #s13.

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