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UNI to review involvement in conference

‘Facilitated communication’ sessions wrap as planned, despite criticism
By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette | Jun 20, 2018

After widespread criticism of its involvement in a conference featuring the controversial practice of “facilitated communication” with disabled people, the University of Northern Iowa is convening a group of faculty experts to discuss practices featured at the event.

UNI hosted the Midwest Summer Institute on Monday and Tuesday despite calls for it to cancel the event and disavow “facilitated communication” — which is based on the idea that facilitators can convey the thoughts of non-verbal individuals by supporting their hand over a keyboard or other communication device.

The method has come under fire from many in the academic and scientific community concerned it puts words in the mouths of the vulnerable and exposes them to abuse.

and false allegations.

A list of 30-plus academics and professors from around the globe in May sent a letter to UNI College of Education Dean Gaetane Jean-Marie asking her to drop support of the event promoting “this invalidated and demonstrably harmful practice.”

UNI did not respond to the letter initially, except to say it was received, according to one of its signatories, Jason Travers, a professor in the Department of Education at the University of Kansas.

Although UNI administrators did not speak with The Gazette on the topic, Jean-Marie in an email over the weekend said she, another administrator and the conference organizer met with UNI faculty to discuss the issue June 11. It’s unclear what came from that conversation.

UNI hosted the two-day conference as planned, along with co-sponsors Inclusion Connection, based in Waverly, and Syracuse University’s Institute on Communication and Inclusion, previously called the Facilitated Communication Institution.

More than 200 people registered to attend, according to Ketelsen.

As it was wrapping up Tuesday afternoon, Ketelsen issued a statement acknowledging concerns have been raised about practices presented at the event.

“The University of Northern Iowa does not condone any practices that are harmful to any individual. Our focus is on nurturing and supporting all individuals in the pursuit of a high-quality education,” according to the statement, which also went to the group that sent UNI the letter expressing concerns in May.

“As an institution of higher learning,” the letter continued, “we value the exploration and critique of ideas and practices through rigorous evaluation of multiple sources of evidence ...”

Supporters of the communication method think it helps disabled people by, among other things, offering emotional support and stability and helping them slow down, enabling communication that previously seemed out of reach.

But critics, according to the letter condemning the conference, said “overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that facilitated communication constitutes a serious violation of the individual, civil and human rights of people with disabilities, robbing them of the opportunity to communicate independently with available innovative technologies.”

Research published in peer-reviewed journals has discredited the technique, and organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have disavowed it.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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