University of Northern Iowa drops controversial conference

'Facilitated communication' critics left with unanswered questions

A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (SourceMedia Group News/Jim Slosiarek)

After earlier this year finding itself ensnared in national debate — and, at times, outrage — over the practice of “facilitated communication,” University of Northern Iowa administrators have decided to no longer host an annual conference featuring the controversial technique.

“The academic leadership at UNI has met to discuss our practices with conferences and have agreed that we would no longer be hosting the facilitated communication conference,” Provost Jim Wohlpart wrote Oct. 24 to a group opposed to the practice.

The group of 30-plus academics and professionals — including faculty from Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University, Emory University and three UNI professors — over the summer wrote UNI College of Education Dean Gaetane Jean-Marie to ask she reconsider promotion of “this invalidated and demonstrably harmful practice.”

“Facilitated communication” entails facilitators conveying the thoughts of non-verbal individuals by supporting their hands over a keyboard or other device while words are typed.

The UNI-based Midwest Summer Institute went on as scheduled June 18-19, with sponsorship from Waverly-based Inclusion Connection and Syracuse University’s Institute on Communication and Inclusion,

But UNI officials afterward committed to convening faculty experts to discuss the practices featured at the event.

UNI’s separation from the event followed those campus discussions, although UNI spokesman Aaron Clingingsmith didn’t answer specific questions about what motivated the decision.

Provost Wohlpart reported in his email that UNI’s education dean met with the event organizer — who is not connected with UNI — but he didn’t disclose details of that meeting or what was said. When asked whether UNI faculty would be involved if the event finds another home, Clingingsmith said, “I am not aware that this is being hosted at another university.”

Facilitated communication has come under fire from many in the academic and scientific community concerned the facilitators put words into the mouths of vulnerable people and expose them and their caregivers to abuse and false allegations. But others have praised it as a life-altering tool.

While UNI has hosted the conference for years, officials told The Gazette they did not collect revenue from the event, which was $250 apiece to attend, and could not verify what it had cost to put on “since we did not organize the event.”

In response to Wohlpart’s message, opponents responded with measured praise and more questions.

“They have distanced themselves from hosting the conference, but does this mean the university will publicly disavow the promotion and use of FC and other facilitator-influenced techniques on their campus?” the group wrote in an email.

UNI had offered academic credit for students who attended the June conference, raising the question of whether UNI will offer credit again if the event is held off-site.

“It’s really welcomed that they have taken this step back and are no going to host this conference any more — it’s in line with the professional bodies and recommendations of so many scientists across so many fields,” said Mark Sherry, sociology professor at University of Toledo and a critic of the method. “But what that really means in practice isn’t clear. So they’re not doing the conference, are they still teaching it?”

Clingingsmith told The Gazette that “to my knowledge, we do not teach facilitated communication as part of academic curriculum.”

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