Editorial Board

Syracuse University’s reinforcement of facilitated communication inexcusable, concerning

It is inexcusable and equal-parts embarrassing for Syracuse University as a research institution to stand behind facilitated communication (FC) despite it being a potentially life-destroying practice that has been empirically debunked.

FC was popularized in the United States by Douglas Biklen — the former dean of SU’s School of Education. Now, faced with 25 years’ worth of evidence discrediting the practice, the university’s Institute on Communication and Inclusion upholds the misguided belief that FC is a valid method of communication for nonverbal people.

The practice, in which a trained “facilitator” supports a “user’s” arm, finger or shoulder to point to letters or type out messages using a keyboard, is dangerously misleading and allows facilitators to have people with disabilities “consent” to sex or even their own death, which can result in instances of rape and murder.

As recently as 2015, SU’s institutional failures were put on national display in the high-profile Anna Stubblefield case — a case experts have said would likely never have happened if not for SU’s practice of FC. The case found Stubblefield guilty of aggravated sexual assault after she followed FC instructions she had learned at SU’s where she had received certification as a facilitator.

For SU to be at the forefront of such a practice is as jarring as it is counterintuitive, considering the university makes outwardly apparent calls to be associated with diversity, inclusion and accessibility and that nonverbal users of FC are primarily individuals with disabilities including autism, brain damage and cerebral palsy.

The institute’s website outlines several studies officials use as evidence to defend the method. But Jim Todd, an Eastern Michigan psychology professor, referred to the flawed research cited by SU as “some of the most incompetent studies in development disabilities.”

SU prides itself on being a top-tier research institution and should therefore recognize this massive error in judgment as an opportunity to realign itself with substantive findings and reevaluate the space on this campus for the practice of FC.

But for facilitated communication to continue to be institutionally reinforced as a valid practice in a dark and essentially unknown field of study on campus should bring nothing but shame to the university.

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