Revisiting “assisting” vs. teaching after WHYY TV drinks the Kool-Aid

A recent segment on Philadelphia’s local public TV station, WHYY TV, uncritically embraces a form of facilitated communication known either as Rapid Prompting Method or Spelling to Communicate. The story was also posted on WHYY’s YouTube channel, and you can watch it there.

Facilitated communication is an extreme form of “assistance” in which the facilitator, also called the “communication and regulations partner”,  unwittingly directs the messages that are attributed to the child.

It would have taken very little research for WHYY to discover that it was promoting a methodology that, all the available evidence suggests, is suppressing the voices of vulnerable individuals, and which professional organizations like the American Speech Language Hearing Association have advised practitioners not to use. 

And it would have taken just an ounce of skepticism for a responsible journalist to wonder how a boy who spent most of his early years in autistic support classrooms could have acquired the knowledge and spelling skills that he purportedly demonstrated the moment he started Spelling to Communicate. Asked to spell out the name of his facilitator, Spelling to Communicate “inventor” Elizabeth Vosseller, he typed (on the letterboards that Vosseller herself held up to him) “Elizabeth.” Asked about amber and resin, he typed “fossilized”–surprising his mother, if not Elizabeth Vosseller.

About 8 1/2 years ago, when I wrote an Out in Left Field post (re-posted today) about Assisting vs. Teaching, I had no idea that Spelling to Communicate was extending its tentacles practically into my backyard (the Philadelphia suburbs), let alone that my public TV station would ever get involved in promoting it.

The concerns I raised in that post regarding assistive devices are, where facilitated communication/Rapid Prompting Method/Spelling to Communicate are concerned, about a thousand times stronger. 

(And those concerns don’t even touch on the biggest concern of all: the suppressing of vulnerable autistic voices that all forms of facilitated communication are liable to… facilitate).

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