Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. Some prevent those living with them from speaking, making communication difficult, although assistive technology has made great strides in helping nonverbal people communicate. For example, text-to-voice programs, including handheld speaking devices, are available. However, a harmful form of assistive technology still exists – facilitated communication.
Slate writer David Auerbach calls facilitated communication, or FC, “a cult that won’t die.” He says FC produces a “Ouija board effect” on the people with disabilities it claims to help. These words may seem harsh, but various cases have shown FC can be harmful, even fatal.
Facilitated communication does not allow the person with a disability to communicate directly. Instead, an aide, caregiver, or other person guides the disabled person’s hand on a keyboard, so that the person can indirectly type out desired messages.
Aides and caregivers have been accused of using FC to make disabled people behave in ways that are advantageous to them. For example, Professor Anna Stubblefield was accused of sexually assaulting D.J., a 33-year-old man with cerebral palsy, after D.J. allegedly asked for relations while she guided his hand on a keyboard. Stubblefield was convicted and faces 10 to 40 years in prison.
Some caregivers claiming to teach communication through FC have been convicted of other crimes. In 2014, pharmaceutical executive Gigi Jordan was convicted of first-degree manslaughter. Jordan said that her 8-year-old son, who had autism and was nonverbal, typed, “I need a lot of drugs to die peacefully … I wish u do it soon” through FC.
Many people believe facilitated communication was completely debunked in the 1990s, and members of the medical community have repeatedly rejected it as a communication tool. Yet, family members and caregivers continue to use it, out of hope that their loved ones will communicate in some way.
Schools, service boards, and communication task forces are stacked with FC supporters, and countless victims of FC continue to be ignored or under-represented. Caregivers, family members, and teachers are urged to find alternatives that truly give disabled persons a voice.