Retraction Watch

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Journal reviewing papers by researcher who sexually assaulted disabled author

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Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 12.10.00 PMA disability journal is “paying significant attention” to papers authored by Anna Stubblefield, a former Rutgers researcher recently convicted of sexually assaulting a disabled man who participated in her research.

Stubblefield was convicted of sexually assaulting “DJ,” a man in his thirties with cerebral palsy who was “declared by the state to have the mental capacity of a toddler,” according to a lengthy piece in the New York Times. Stubblefield and DJ published papers in Disability Studies Quarterly; in one, Stubblefield describes a controversial technique which she claimed helped DJ communicate. But when she eventually used the technique to say DJ was in love with her, his family took her to court, and she was convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

Here is the note from Disability Studies Quarterly, which was published this morning

Note About Volume 31, Issue 4 (2011)

The Society for Disability Studies (SDS) Board of Directors, as the final oversight and decision-making body of Disability Studies Quarterly, is aware of the many questions and debate regarding several articles published in the 2011 (31.4) issue. As an intellectual community, centered on scholarship, research, and learning, we are paying significant attention to the issues raised. We have not yet come to a decision. The case itself, regarding the authors, is not yet concluded.

The notice doesn’t specify which papers are being looked at, whether it’s a formal investigation, and if the note represents a formal Expression of Concern. But that issue of the journal contains an article by Stubblefield, in which she claims she successfully used to help DJ communicate: “Sound and Fury: When Opposition to Facilitated Communication Functions as Hate Speech.” There is another article in the issue authored by DJ (which also says “c/o Anna Stubblefield”), but we are not providing a link to this article out of concerns for his privacy.

Brenda Brueggemann, the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Society for Disability Studies (SDS), which publishes DSQ, confirmed that the note refers to Stubblefield’s articles. She also told us why the note does not list the names of the articles:

No specific articles are mentioned with the statement because the case surrounding the authors is still in process and privacy is being respected as well.

DJ’s paper discusses how it’s possible to learn language without being able to communicate.

Whether or not he can communicate has been up for debate. According to The New York Times:

In 2004, five years before Anna met him, a clinical psychologist named Wayne Tillman, who consults for New Jersey’s Bureau of Guardianship Services, assessed D.J. and found that his impairments precluded any formal testing of intelligence, but that certain facts could be inferred: ‘‘His comprehension seemed to be quite limited,’’ ‘‘his attention span was very short’’ and he ‘‘lacks the cognitive capacity to understand and participate in decisions.’’ D.J. could not even carry out basic, preschool-­level tasks. A few months later, a court made P. and Wesley his legal guardians.

From the time she met D.J., Anna thought Tillman had it wrong. D.J. might be unable to speak or hold a pencil, but those are motor skills, not mental ones, and their absence didn’t mean his mind was blank. What if D.J. had a private chamber in his head, a place where grown-up thoughts were trapped behind his palsy? Then, of course, he would fail the standard tests of his I.Q. — tests made for people who can answer questions verbally or read and write. What D.J. needed was another way to share his deep intelligence.

The NYT explains how a method of communication that he eventually learned from Stubblefield supposedly works:

Starting with her hand beneath his elbow, [Stubblefield] helped him point at pictures, and then at letters, and eventually at the buttons of a Neo, a hand-held keyboard with a built-in screen. With his hand in hers, she helped him type out words after 30 years of silence.

But many now question all of DJ’s supposed accomplishments. His family’s initial elation at his ability to communicate disappeared as soon as Stubblefield declared they were in love, says The NYT:

What at first struck them as a miracle — a voice for D.J., his inner self revealed — now seemed a fraud. D.J. could not have given his consent to any love affair, they later told the authorities, because he suffers from profound mental disabilities, just as the psychologists had always told them. His ‘‘messages’’ must have been a sham. If Anna pretended otherwise, it was only so she could use D.J. as a guinea pig for research, or to further her career, or because, as [DJ’s brother] Wesley would later say during the three-week trial for sexual assault that concluded [in October] in Newark, ‘‘she was having some sick, twisted fantasy.’’

Anna has never wavered in her claim that she and D.J. fell in love and that his messages were his.

Indeed, some experts argue her “facilitated communication” methods aren’t scientific, as Slate explains:

Stubblefield has argued that the technique allows disabled people to type on a keyboard with the help of a facilitator, but the approach has been compared to using a Ouija board and called invalid by the American Psychological Association and the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. The judge in the case has refused to allow expert testimony on the method because it is “not a recognized science.”

DSQ is not indexed in Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. An email to Stubblefield’s Rutger’s address for comment bounced back. She hasn’t been commenting in the press on this case.

Stubblefield will be sentenced on November 9th.

Hat tip: Michael Dougherty

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Comments
  • Neuroskeptic November 3, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    “There is another article in the issue authored by DJ…”

    Surely we can only say that it was allegedly authored by DJ. Or, that it is bearing DJ’s name.

  • Jason Travers November 3, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    One wonders whether the Society for Disability Studies will also reject conference presentation proposals that promote puppetry of people with disabilities. I won’t hold my breath.

    • Shawn Datchuk November 3, 2015 at 11:11 pm

      Jason – what a horrible story and tragic failure of their peer-review process. Keep up the good fight.

      • ELF November 4, 2015 at 7:33 am

        How would this be picked up in the peer-review process? Reviewers should be blinded to the authors so shouldn’t know that the author is the subject of investigation. In theory there shouldn’t be enough participant information in the paper to identify an individual (unless the individual has given specific consent, but even then it’s discouraged).

        • Jason Travers November 4, 2015 at 12:21 pm

          Because it has been widely known for decades that facilitated communication is without any merit; it’s a thoroughly debunked method that usurps the voices of people with disabilities.

  • Gary November 4, 2015 at 4:25 am

    This is indeed horrible. But I wonder that if DJ really could “point” at pictures with help then couldn’t they use eye-ball tracking software instead of “a helping hand”? After all if indeed the person was pointing they must have been looking at what they where pointing too…

    • Kat November 4, 2015 at 1:37 pm

      I’ve been wondering that myself, or if some other technology could be used to provide the services that FC is supposed to provide while removing the human influence. I don’t know if standard eye-tracking software would necessarily work because the issues that FC tries to mitigate are things like seizures and palsy that cause people to experience a lot of twitches and extraneous motion that would make it hard to interpret the results, but I do think that a kind of specialized eye-tracking software designed to take a sort of “average” of where the eye is looking might work, or perhaps a brace for the arm that limits jerky sudden motions but allows more gradual motions (kinda like how a seatbelt locks when pulled on suddenly, but allows normal movement).

      Since FC is often used with people with severe autism, it also seems possible that it’s not the guiding hand that is really the most helpful part, but just the soothing sensation of supportive but emotionally neutral physical contact. (The fact that autism and other similar disorders can cause hypersensitivity to physical touch and a tendency to be easily overwhelmed makes what Stubblefield did even worse, morally and ethically speaking; if even hugs are intensely uncomfortable to a person, then sexual assault… eurgh.) Even that can be mimicked using technology– the word “hugbox” has taken on its own meaning on the Internet, but the original hugbox is actually a machine invented by an autistic woman to provide soothing-but-not-overwhelming physical contact to people with sensory processing issues. Weighted blankets are another thing that provides a similar sort of effect. So it might be possible to simulate that aspect of FC with something like a specialized compression sock or massaging device for the arm that could reduce overwhelming physical sensations, and maybe make it easier for the person to control their own body by reducing the tension and other physical reactions associated with sensory overload.

      I think the goals of FC are laudable, but we’re at the point where we can start seeking other solutions to the problems it seeks to address using different technologies, because humans just aren’t very good at being impartial tools like Facilitated Communicators seek to be.

  • Miriam November 4, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    “Facilitated communication” has been debunked as a method of augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) for DECADES. A quick google scholar search found a review from 2001 that says in the abstract, “Previous reviews of Facilitated Communication (FC) studies have clearly established that proponents’ claims are largely unsubstantiated and that using FC as an intervention for communicatively impaired or noncommunicative individuals is not recommended.” (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1010795219886) It’s terribly sad that this is still going on, and the exploitation and sexual assault in this case are prime examples of why no competent clinician would propose using it.

  • Jose November 6, 2015 at 12:13 am

    Any textual analysis gurus care to run some of Stubblefield’s writing and compare with the article allegedly authored by DJ?

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