In October, Anna Stubblefield, 45, a Rutgers University ethics professor, was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault against her severely disabled adult student. She was set to be sentenced on Monday, but her defense team has filed a motion to have her conviction overturned or convene a new trial. The now-divorced mother of two is facing a 40-year sentence, the same amount of hard time that would be issued to someone who perpetrated a gang rape. Throughout her trial, Stubblefield claimed that the sexual affair with her student was consensual because the two were in love.
Aside from being undeniably salacious, the question at hand sheds a light on the nature of hope that caretakers and advocates often maintain for the severely disabled, and how badly good intentions can go awry.
Stubblefield’s victim is a 35-year old man, referred to in court papers as “D.J.” D.J. is non-verbal due to his severe cerebral palsy. He mostly communicates through screams and chirps, corresponding to unhappy and happy states. D.J. is so physically impaired that he wears diapers, can’t dress himself, and according to Daniel Engber’s story in the New York Times Magazine (it’s an excellent story—go read it, get obsessed with it like I am, and come back here to discuss), he “can walk only if someone steadies him, and otherwise he gets around by scooting on the floor.” New York state clinicians believe that D.J. has the mental capacity of a toddler.
Stubblefield believes that D.J. is simply trapped by his palsy; that locked inside his body is an active mind attached to a healthy libido. Stubblefield claims that D.J. gave his consent to have oral sex and then intercourse through a series of messages typed out on a keyboard.
D.J.’s family originally intended for Stubblefield to teach D.J. to communicate through a controversial typing method known as “facilitated communication,” or FC. In FC, a trained facilitator, like Stubblefield, helps guide a disabled person’s hand, wrist, or arm while they type messages. FC depends on the idea that some people don’t have the motor skills to type but with a little physical support they can effectively communicate. Facilitated communication methods range from a facilitator simply holding a keyboard steady while the other person independently types to a facilitator spooning a person’s hand in their own, with their finger placed over the person’s finger. To the naked eye, the latter method can look like the facilitator is just manipulating the person’s hand, like a planchette on a Ouija board.
Below is an example of facilitated communication under the best circumstances, where a person is clearly independently typing with little assistance:
The clip above is from a documentary called Autism Is a World, starring Sue Rubin, a woman diagnosed with low-functioning autism who was unable to communicate before she started using FC. Stubblefield showed part of the documentary to her Rutgers students. (Here, also, is a clip Stubblefield lecturing on notion that intellect is a social construct). One of those students was D.J.’s brother. It was the brother’s idea to see if Stubblefield could help D.J..
What D.J.’s brother perhaps did not know was that the American Psychiatric Association has deemed facilitated communication unsound because the method is too greatly influenced by the facilitator.
For instance, controlled studies have revealed that many non-verbal people who use facilitated communication often type with one finger with their eyes closed or looking away from the keyboard—which is an an impossible task. Even professional typists can’t do it (they need to be able to position their hands on the “home row” of the keyboard to type without looking). Try it: you won’t be able to type out words. Below is an example of likely fraudulent facilitated communication from a 1993 Frontline documentary:
In the same documentary, a speech pathologist named Marian Pisastas says she adopted facilitated communication with an evangelical fervor, even though there were clear warning signs that the method could be unsound. “I know for myself I wanted so hard to believe that it was real that I wasn’t able to listen to objective thinking about it because it grabs you emotionally,” Pisastas tells the camera, pointing to her heart, “and you are hooked. I don’t think I was able to rationally think about it.”
According the NYT Magazine, when Stubblefield announced to D.J.’s family that the two had fallen in love, D.J.’s mother accused her of taking advantage of his D.J.’s disability. With Stubblefield’s assistance, D.J. typed, “No one’s been taken advantage of. I’ve been trying to seduce Anna for years, and she resisted me valiantly.” D.J. added, “Kiss me,” a message intended for Stubblefied.
D.J.’s mother didn’t buy it. Though Stubblefield claimed that D.J. was a voracious reader-–asking specifically for titles by Maya Angelou —and an eager communicator, he refused to type for or with this mother or his brother. The most D.J. ever typed for his family is “the”. Furthermore, when D.J. was asked a question that only he would know the answer to—as in, “Who is Georgia,” D.J.’s favorite aunt, who’d been a major care taker for him—D.J., with Stubblefield’s assistance, typed, “used to work for mom.” Stubblefield insisted the answer is correct because Georgia did indeed “work” with D.J.’s mom in taking care of him.
In the six year span from when Stubblefield met D.J. to her criminal trial, Stubblefield was able to publish an a chapter regarding cognitive disabilities in an academic book. She wrote about D.J.: “In the Spring of 2011, D.J.’s access to his means of communication was taken from him and he is once again treated as severely intellectually impaired by those who have control over his life again. This chapter is dedicated to him.”
Stubblefield’s new hearing is set for January. In the meantime, she is undergoing a series of psychological tests to prove that she is not a sexual compulsive or predator in hopes of leniency should her petition be denied.
Image via YouTube
Correction: The original article listed Stubblefield’s age as 46, though she does not turn 46 until December. I also erred by stating that D.J. was confined to wheelchair when he, according to the NYT Magazine, scoots around on his butt. Additionally, the original article referenced D.J. asking for Stubblefield for material from Shakespeare and Maya Angelou but in fact only asked for the latter. I regret the errors.