Why facilitated communication and its variants cannot be compared to sign language

I recently posted this comment at FacilitatedCommunication.org in response to a comment on a post from last October about Penn State’s hosting of a pro-FC event. Given all that’s gone on since Penn State hosted this conference (for example, this), and the persistence of certain problematic claims, I think it’s worth posting here, too.

As someone with several deaf family members, I have long appreciated how the cognitive abilities of deaf people have appeared deficient due to language deprivation and its effects on cognitive development. Access to authentic communication methods–sign language, TTYs, and, more recently, text messaging–that allow deaf people to communicate independently has more or less put an end to these impressions and consequences.

Unfortunately, RPM and S2C, like other forms of communication, are not forms of independent communication. All the available evidence indicates that the facilitators or helpers are directing the messages. If you look at the videos in the supplemental material in the paper you cite, you can see board movements that move extended index fingers closer to target letters, the assistant making questionable judgments about which letters were selected, and, in at least one video, calling out letters before they were selected. There is simply no comparison to ASL or to independent texting.

Critiques of the paper you cite are here and here.

The cues involved in S2C and RPM, while powerful, can be subtle enough that many people who observe S2C and RPM sessions don’t see them. Rather, they find these sessions convincing or, at least, are unable to identify the precise cues. But consider how magic shows work. Most people don’t conclude, after watching a magic show, that rabbits really can come out of nowhere or that magicians really can read our minds. Instead, they assume that they simply were unable to see the tricks involved. Our naked eyes only take us so far.

In the case of RPM/S2C, there are real reasons to suspect that what we see with our naked eyes isn’t the whole story. Language skills in autism decline with autism severity, from the large vocabularies and complex sentences of those at the mild end of the spectrum, to the smaller vocabularies and more limited sentence structures of those in the middle, to smaller vocabularies and one or two-word utterances at the more severe end of the spectrum. There is unlikely to be a sudden spike in linguistic skill at that end of the spectrum that emerges only through hunt and peck typing when assistants are within cuing range. Nor is there any known language disorder that involves limited vocabulary, syntax skills, and communication skills when speaking, and highly sophisticated language and communication that emerges only through hunt and peck typing when assistants are within cuing range.

There are also real reasons to be very concerned about the effects of S2C and RPM on the communication rights of vulnerable individuals. In this video, you can see the individual undergoing S2C protesting “No more! No more!” while her assistant cues her with her free hand to type out a message at odds with the words that she’s communicating on her own:

That girl would clearly much rather be doing something else. Who wouldn’t?

And that, ultimately, is the real concern.

3 thoughts on “Why facilitated communication and its variants cannot be compared to sign language

  1. I just tried to post another long comment and it disappeared! I am too tired to email it to Katharine beals now so i will follow up tomorrow.

    Like

  2. Another “long comment” test by way of another mise en abyme:

    I recently posted this comment at FacilitatedCommunication.org in response to a comment on a post from last October about Penn State’s hosting of a pro-FC event. Given all that’s gone on since Penn State hosted this conference (for example, this), and the persistence of certain problematic claims, I think it’s worth posting here, too.

    As someone with several deaf family members, I have long appreciated how the cognitive abilities of deaf people have appeared deficient due to language deprivation and its effects on cognitive development. Access to authentic communication methods–sign language, TTYs, and, more recently, text messaging–that allow deaf people to communicate independently has more or less put an end to these impressions and consequences.

    Unfortunately, RPM and S2C, like other forms of communication, are not forms of independent communication. All the available evidence indicates that the facilitators or helpers are directing the messages. If you look at the videos in the supplemental material in the paper you cite, you can see board movements that move extended index fingers closer to target letters, the assistant making questionable judgments about which letters were selected, and, in at least one video, calling out letters before they were selected. There is simply no comparison to ASL or to independent texting.

    Critiques of the paper you cite are here and here.

    The cues involved in S2C and RPM, while powerful, can be subtle enough that many people who observe S2C and RPM sessions don’t see them. Rather, they find these sessions convincing or, at least, are unable to identify the precise cues. But consider how magic shows work. Most people don’t conclude, after watching a magic show, that rabbits really can come out of nowhere or that magicians really can read our minds. Instead, they assume that they simply were unable to see the tricks involved. Our naked eyes only take us so far.

    In the case of RPM/S2C, there are real reasons to suspect that what we see with our naked eyes isn’t the whole story. Language skills in autism decline with autism severity, from the large vocabularies and complex sentences of those at the mild end of the spectrum, to the smaller vocabularies and more limited sentence structures of those in the middle, to smaller vocabularies and one or two-word utterances at the more severe end of the spectrum. There is unlikely to be a sudden spike in linguistic skill at that end of the spectrum that emerges only through hunt and peck typing when assistants are within cuing range. Nor is there any known language disorder that involves limited vocabulary, syntax skills, and communication skills when speaking, and highly sophisticated language and communication that emerges only through hunt and peck typing when assistants are within cuing range.

    There are also real reasons to be very concerned about the effects of S2C and RPM on the communication rights of vulnerable individuals. In this video, you can see the individual undergoing S2C protesting “No more! No more!” while her assistant cues her with her free hand to type out a message at odds with the words that she’s communicating on her own:

    That girl would clearly much rather be doing something else. Who wouldn’t?

    And that, ultimately, is the real concern.

    Like

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