TRIGGER WARNINGS: (possible) rape and sexual abuse, ableist rhetoric around intelligence, development and communication, racism
I’ve been mulling over the case of Anna Stubblefield for a while now, and trying to think of the best way to write a blog post about it here. I am still so puzzled, and maybe that is just the only thing to be sometimes. I’ve tried to condense this post as much as possible, but because the case is so complicated, it is somewhat long.
A brief overview, based on details gleaned mainly from this article in NYT:
+ Anna Stubblefield was a philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and an a white, presumably able-privileged disability rights activist. She learned a great deal from her mother, who was also an activist, about working with disabled people to provide better accommodations. Her ex-husband is a black tuba player and classical composer and they have two kids together. Anna was / is very involved with anti-racist work as well as other social justice issues, too.
+ Several years ago, she began to work with a disabled black man, D.J. or DMan, who has cerebral palsy and is presumed to “have the mental capacity of a toddler” (along with a “very low IQ”). She disagreed with the professional assessment of D.J.’s intelligence and social / relational abilities, and, at the request of his family, began to work with him using facilitated communication, which is a contentious method that potentially allows disabled people to communicate, but which has also been largely discredited (for an overview of the ways in which it has been debunked by mainstream scientific discourse, see this wikipedia article). It is assumed that it is actually the facilitators’ ideas and thoughts that are being communicated, and that the disabled people in question cannot communicate this way.
+ However, many people within disability justice communities, including many disabled people, argue that mainstream perspectives on facilitated communication have an obvious ableist bias and that this method should not be discredited. From this marginalized perspective, DMan’s agency should be respected, and, for example, the ideas presented in this article in DSQ, written by him using facilitated communication, should be respected.
+ Supposedly, Anna and DMan fell in love with each other and had an affair. When Anna told his family about the affair and that they wished to get married, his family was horrified and pursued a legal case against Anna, claiming that there was no way D.J. could consent to a sexual relationship with Anna, and that she had raped him. As this case has been proceeding, many different arguments have emerged, some of which can be reviewed at the following links:
- The aforementioned writer in the New York Times has maintained a mostly observational stance without as much of a political bent, going on to pen another article about what Anna believed she was doing.
- A facebook page that advocates for facilitated communication outlines the case here.
- Julie, a disabled activist, writes candidly about her experiences witnessing the trial here, noting the ableist ways in which DMan was consistently treated throughout.
- Amy Sequenzia also reiterates the ableist rhetoric surrounding DMan’s character here.
- Cara Liebowitz deconstructs ableist notions of intelligence as they apply to this case here.
- Emily Brooks also discusses ableism around intelligence, communication, etc. in this case: here and here, expressing her concern about the prosecution’s tactics.
- Ralph Savarese provides a more complex overview of facilitated communication here, remarking that Anna clearly lacked judgment in her behaviour, but that the case is more complicated than assumed.
- Some feminists are concerned with disability activists’ unequivocal assertion that facilitated communication is valid, and maintain that Anna did not get meaningful consent from D.J. [link]
- David Perry reflects on sexual ableism here, also noting that we must complicate the discourse if we are to respect disabled people’s subjectivities.
In the face of all of this media coverage, and so much more, I still remain confused. Obviously, I care more about what disabled people, activists and otherwise, have to say on the subject. It’s clear that DMan has no voice, or is granted no voice, in all of this. The judges do not allow any facilitated communication to take place in court because it has been scientifically discredited. I also wonder about how, as a black man, he is also shunted into categories of exclusion and abjection. What kind of power dynamics are at play between a largely white and academic disability activist movement on the one hand, and a much less privileged black family on the other? These are all really significant questions. It seems that Anna really believes she had consent, and I don’t know what to say to that. So many “taboo” relationships are just outright lambasted rather than paying attention to the interstices and nuances. But, on the other hand, what if it is true that DMan was raped, violated, and given words that were not his own? Our legal system relies on the ability to find definite answers, but in this case there don’t seem to be any, really.