Related criminal and civil cases against a Rutgers University at Newark philosophy professor, alleging she sexually assaulted a man with cerebral palsy, are raising questions among disability studies scholars about what constitutes consent and autonomy, and are renewing debate about a contested method of communication for those with some types of disabilities.
In 2008, according to court documents, Anna Stubblefield taught a course in which she discussed facilitated communication. The method’s validity is disputed, but Stubblefield, whose work centers on race and ethics and intellect as a social construct, has advocated its efficacy. Proponents say facilitated communication can help those who can’t otherwise communicate do so, using a “facilitator’s” arm to point to a keyboard or other technology to share their thoughts. Critics say there’s no way to tell whose thoughts are coming across – the disabled person’s, or the facilitator’s.
In that 2008 class was the brother of a man with cerebral palsy. He asked Stubblefield if she could help his brother communicate. She allegedly began working with the brother, identified in court documents as “John Roe,” meeting with him at Rutgers, his home, and other locations. The relationship developed into a kind of research partnership, with Stubblefield arranging for her and “Roe” to present at out-of-state conferences in 2010. Their work together is apparently documented in a 2011 Disability Studies Quarterly article written by the man, facilitated by Stubblefield, called “The Role of Communication in Thought.”
“Thinking does not need communication,” the article, which lists DMan Johnson as author, says. “I might not be able to talk, but I think grammatically perfectly. The mostly believable idea that grammar is learned through talking is not true.”
Johnson concludes: “I got my means of communication later than most people. But people know how to think in their heads before they learn to talk.”
Stubblefield also allegedly took the man, now 33, to a pool party that year.
In 2011, Stubblefield allegedly met with the man’s parents to inform them that the relationship had become sexual. The parents, who were appointed as their son’s legal guardians in 2005 and are identified in court documents as “Jane Roe” and “Richard Roe,” say Stubblefield molested their son. They say he was physically and intellectually incapable of consent and has the cognitive ability of an 18-month old. But Stubblefield says that she informed the parents that she and John Roe were in love, and that their sexual relations were consensual.
The parents allege that the professor’s work with their son was a “farce,” according to court documents, and informed Rutgers of their concerns. Court documents say that Rutgers informed local police and “separated Stubblefield from the community.”
A university spokesman said the associate professor, who formerly was chair of her department, is on leave. Saying the case concerned legal and private, personnel matters, he declined to comment further.
Rutgers initially was listed as co-defendant in the civil suit by the man's parents, but a judge in 2013 and again in January granted requests by Rutgers to be released from the suit. The man’s parents, in different court filings, allege that the university had followed an “unofficial” policy of “turning a blind eye” to illegal human research so as not to trigger an investigation that could jeopardize federal grants. Rutgers did reimburse Stubblefield for her conference travel with John Roe, but the court found that the plaintiffs failed to present more than a “speculative” case against the university.
The civil case against Stubblefield remains. That’s on hold for now, however, pending the criminal case against the professor, in which she faces charges of aggravated sexual assault. She and the Roes are expected to appear in court this week for a hearing to determine whether or not John Roe needs further testing to determine his ability to offer consent, The Star-Ledger first reported.
Stubblefield could not immediately be reached for comment. Her lawyer, James Patton, did not respond to a request for comment. Patton told The Star-Ledger that because John Roe is not a minor, the case will center on his ability to offer consent, which Stubblefield contends he gave.
While many questions in the case remain to be answered, it’s already caught the attention of disability studies scholars and advocates.
Michael Bérubé, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, has written extensively about disability studies, and about the fact that his son has Down syndrome. He said the Stubblefield case would renew the debate about facilitated communication – something Bérubé says works -- drawing out its detractors.
“No doubt this will be yet another opportunity for people to claim that [the method] is a fraud,” he said. “I understand the basis for skepticism but have seen it at work with people who cannot possibly be being manipulated," including the nonverbal son of a colleague, who is now attending college.
A discussion on the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund’s Facebook page started by a Stubblefield supporter, for example, has evolved into a discussion about the merits and criticisms of facilitated communication.
One of the participants in that discussion, Jason C. Travers, an assistant professor of student development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has studied autism spectrum disorders and assistive technology. In an email, he said the Stubblefield case "demonstrates the potential for catastrophic harm associated with [facilitated communication, which was] long ago debunked by numerous well-designed empirical research studies." He called it "a manifestation of the well-known and understood ideomotor effect (the phenomenon responsible for the Ouija board effect)."
Travers said even facilitators "usually do not realize they are authoring the messages, but every credible study indicates that they are," and that Stubblefield herself may have been "duped" by the method.
Bérubé said of the case: “[W]hether this man was being manipulated by Stubblefield, I have no idea, and really don't want to speculate.”
The charges of sexual assault add another layer of complexity to the debate, he added.
Tammy Berberi, president of the Society for Disability Studies and associate professor of French at the University of Minnesota at Morris, said she couldn’t offer extensive comment on the case, in part because of conflict of interest issues (the society produces the journal in which Stubblefield and John Roe published). But she said that the society generally advocates empowerment of disabled persons, and that on its face the Stubblefield case seems to raise questions of “agency” and “autonomy.” Berberi pointed to the recent case of a New York man and woman, married and both with developmental disabilities, who fought to share the same bedroom in a group home.
“It’s very similar,” she said of the some of the issues raised.
Andrew Gordon, a professor of movement studies at Teachers College at Columbia University, studies cerebral palsy and rehabilitation. He said via email that cognitive levels of those with cerebral palsy vary widely, and aren't necessarily apparent through communication abilities.
"Certainly there are many individuals with [cerebral palsy] who have very limited communication," he said. "Their cognition can vary tremendously. The cognitive aspect can certainly be perceived as impaired simply by virtue of the lack of, or poor quality, of communication."