More Doubts over Disability ‘Miracle’

There’s always someone to peddle false hope to the broken-hearted, the guileless and the gullible.

..From cancer “cures” to aphrodisiacs, mail-order marriages to miracle diets, the market never quite dries up.

Not that everyone who sells hope does it for money. The best evangelists believe what they’re preaching, even if it smells like snake oil to a passing stranger.

This brings us to “facilitated communication” for the handicapped – and the woman who invented it, Melbourne’s own Dr Rosemary Crossley AM.

The Herald Sun this week drew attention to growing scientific scepticism about Crossley’s self-taught system of “assisting” handicapped people to communicate using what its critics dismiss as a “ouija board”.

Crossley inspired an award-winning 1980s film based on her book, Annie’s Coming Out, which she purportedly co-wrote with the severely handicapped Annie McDonald after winning a Supreme Court action to have Ms McDonald leave the state-run St Nicholas Hospital and live with her.

Inevitably, a few parents who have put their trust in Crossley have leapt to defend her because they think any criticism of her reflects on their efforts to help their disabled children.

Who can blame them? They need faith in something to get them through a lifetime of anguish, and Crossley’s potent blend of personality and psychology meets the market. Many desperate parents “drink the Kool-Aid”, as the Americans say.

But not everyone does. Our story prompted witnesses to reveal their long-held suspicions about Crossley’s apparent manipulation of Annie McDonald’s “communication”.

Such as the award-winning documentary maker who, as a young cameraman, spent a week filming Crossley and McDonald for 60 Minutes in 1983.

The segment won a Logie – but the cameraman later wondered if it was deserved. “I was sure (Rosemary) manipulated Annie’s elbow to get the results she wanted,” he writes. “Annie was never part of the process. Her eyes were always somewhere else.”

I have known that cameraman for 25 years. I have known another witness even longer. He managed publicity for Annie’s Coming Out.

He writes: “It wasn’t long into the media rounds with Crossley and Annie that I got an uneasy feeling that Crossley was often speaking through Annie, rather than the other way around. The unease was shared by a few people around the film … but (was) quietly ignored or expressed in hushed asides. Hell, we were in showbiz and never let the truth get in the way of a good story or valuable promotional publicity.”

He goes on to suggest that Angela Punch-McGregor, who played the character based on Crossley, was also uneasy about the validity of the role once she had seen Crossley “facilitate” Annie McDonald. This wariness was apparently shared by the film-makers, because they fictionalised all characters’ names, an odd thing to do with a “true story” directly based on a biographical book.

The film man concludes: “I guess McDonald had a better life because of Crossley’s efforts and the case prompted reform in institutional care of the severely disabled. But did FC liberate Annie from an internal prison or was it a device that furthered Crossley’s determined, almost messianic, fervour to shine a light on what was happening (or not) in institutional care? A case of doing the ‘wrong’ thing for the right reasons is possibly the most favourable light I can put on it.”

Retired special education teacher Esther Stevens, who asks to be quoted, is more damning. She recalls trying for a year to teach a mentally impaired student named “Ty” to spell his name. He couldn’t do it. “Then his mother took him to Rosemary Crossley – who, I’m ashamed to say, I invited to the school before I realised the truth. Ty’s mother came back all excited because he had supposedly spelled out ‘Help me. I am in dire straits’.”

It was preposterous to suggest the boy “wrote” anything, let alone “dire straits”, Ms Stevens says.

It’s Crossley and her blindest supporters who are in dire straits because commonsense evidence shows it’s not so much a pseudo-science as a pseudo-religion.

An example. We selected a passage of Rosemary Crossley’s writing to compare with prose she claimed Annie McDonald had written and asked a UK forensic linguist, Dr Kate Storey-Whyte, to analyse both passages.

The expert concluded that if the samples came from two people of different ages, background, status, education and life experience (such as Crossley and McDonald) “it would be expected that there would be immediately obvious differences in lexicon, syntax and presentation of self”.

But there were no such differences, she said. “The complex and at times convoluted syntax, the sophisticated and emotive lexicon, the rhetorical devices, punctuation, sentence length, readability index, error formation and the subtext appeared almost identical in both samples.”

In other words, it’s about as kosher as a three-dollar note. Or, as Dr Storey-Whyte politely puts it: “Any claims for this technique should be regarded with a degree of scepticism.” And there’s more.

We selected 15 complex words and general knowledge questions from work Crossley claimed Annie McDonald had done and asked trainee journalists to answer them. The best result was 10 of 15.

Pass the Kool-Aid.


View Article (off-site)
Accessibility, Access, Inclusion, Aids, Equipment, Technology, Human Rights, Social Justice, Case Studies

Andrew Rule

Herald Sun

Date published:
Fri 18th May, 2012