Silenced in the court: Facilitated communication and the meanings of disability and disability research in the legal setting

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Douglas Biklen


Court, Facilitated communication, Disability, Legal, child protective service

Subject Categories

Disability and Equity in Education | Family Law | Special Education and Teaching


In this qualitative study I have examined the legal decisions in six U.S. court cases considering the use of facilitated communication. These courts were looking at facilitated communication in response to alleged disclosure of abuse. What were the concepts, issues and judgments about disability and about disability research that were made relevant---and how did the participants and commentators involved in these court cases make these relevant? Drawing on the work of Foucault, I wanted to understand which ways of talking about disability and research were rewarded, which were punished, and whose interests were served. In the legal setting, who is authorized to say what about disability? Who and what is recognized?

Empirical materials included fieldnotes from participant observations of a family court during a preliminary hearing, transcripts of audiotaped interviews and of public presentations, as well as fieldnotes from informal conversations (some face-to-face and some over the telephone) with Child Protective Service investigators, attorneys and judges. Documents collected and analyzed included official court documents including transcripts of trials, attorneys' briefs, the published decisions of six court cases, and seven law review articles examining the courts' decisions. While it is not a study of the legal system per se, the study examines this system as a site where meanings of science, research, ability, and disability are contested.

Minow (1990) suggests that legal decisions and analyses can be read for their expression of the worldviews that shape those analyses. I draw on the work of Minow (1990) to elaborate three approaches to legal analysis; the abnormal-persons approach, the rights-analysis approach, and the social-relations approach. Chapter Five addresses the discourses of disability and of science. These discourses are part of the context within which participants made sense of facilitated communication. These are the discourses that shape, and are shaped by, the work of the participants. I attempt to show how the abnormal-persons approach to legal analysis both depends upon and supports an empiricist discourse of normal science. In the final chapter I consider the implications of discourses of disability and disability research for participation in the legal setting. I suggest that Minow's social-relations approach to legal analysis offers a way to counter the dominant empiricist discourses of disability research in the legal setting.


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