THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Justice for All : Don Cardinal is passionate in his belief that facilitated communication markedly improves the lives of the autistic. And he’s standing firm even as criticism mounts.


Don Cardinal--former street tough, college dropout, and now academic and advocate--opens a door to show a visitor his world.

Inside room H105 of Whittier’s California High School sit six fidgeting students, including 15-year-old Dan McMillan. Dan has autism, a brain disorder that’s all but closed him off from his surroundings. He sniffs Cardinal’s sleeve curiously; he can’t speak beyond a moan and squints through thick glasses.

The boy’s teacher catches his eye, and asks him: “Can you tell Don what classes you had today?”


Dan hesitates, then stares up at the mustachioed man encouraging him with a broad smile.

He is asked again. Finally, Dan’s teacher grips and supports his hand with her own, extending his index finger toward a keyboard on a table in front of him. Dan pushes down and points at the letter H. Then he stabs at what appear to be I, S, T, O, R and Y.

“Ah,” the teacher says. “History.” All the while, Cardinal--a special education professor at Chapman University in Orange--beams like a proud godparent.

Cardinal asks: “Who would not want a person to be able to communicate like this?”

The answer: Lots of people.

It’s called “facilitated communication,” or FC, and it works this way: A severely disabled student points to letters on a keyboard with assistance from a teacher--or “facilitator”--who supports the person’s hand or arm, or touches the students’ shoulder. The letters spell out words, and sometimes sentences.

Although facilitated communication has won passionate believers among some parents and teachers, to others it’s no more than an insidious farce that fills desperate mothers and fathers with false hopes. A cadre of autism specialists across the nation cites court cases in which children falsely reported sexual abuse through facilitated communication, and charges were raised that facilitators influenced the children’s words. No one has shown with scientific validity, detractors say, that disabled people are actually communicating their own thoughts.

FC has been debunked and discarded on news shows such as “60 Minutes” and “20/20”--and some autism experts have made it their life’s work to show it’s a hoax.

That’s where Cardinal comes in, standing his ground as a hurricane of controversy swirls around. Cardinal, 43, bridges the gap between scientist and activist. He talks regularly to the faithful and the skeptics--”we’re all in the debate,” he says--as he conducts the nation’s largest study (43 subjects at several Southern California sites) to see if the technique is effective.


Cardinal, who directs Chapman’s special education program, supports the method, but wants to prove it in a way that’s accepted by staunch opponents.

TV newsmagazines have interviewed him; his articles have appeared in higher education publications and journals. He’s touted as the prime researcher supporting facilitated communication on the West Coast, and has presented workshops with the Syracuse University professor who introduced the method to mainstream America in 1990.

Cardinal has come a long way from school-kid days when he worked 60-hour-a-week summers for minimum wage in his strict father’s plumbing-parts factory. Two of his turbulent late teen years in Downey vanished down a drain of drug use, he admits.

But he turned his life around, got his doctorate in special education, gained a family and charged ahead with a passionate, driven zeal to be an advocate for disabled peoples’ rights.

“Social justice for people with severe disabilities is one of the last frontiers,” Cardinal says. “When the FC fight came up, I looked at my wife and said, ‘How can I resist this one?’ This is my issue.”

Cal State Fullerton Professor Emeritus Leo Schmidt, Cardinal’s longtime mentor, says Cardinal knows the dangers of researching the controversial method. “But like he has been all his life, he’s been more than willing to explore,” Schmidt says. “That’s something many academicians have forgotten about.”



Cardinal reclines at a table in Chapman University’s cafeteria. It’s abuzz with college students, chattering and taking a break from class.

“I was a horrible high school student,” he says with a laugh.

There was no family history of college. All four grandparents emigrated from Italy. His mother, Rose, finished fourth grade. Sam, his father, made it only through eighth, but managed to build a small plumbing-supply wholesaler into a successful business.

Every summer, from ages 14 to 17, Cardinal worked in one of his father’s three factories, making plumbing valves and pipes. From the time the whistle blew in the morning to the moment he locked the plant’s doors at night, Cardinal was there. And winter vacations? He was there, too, all the time working for $1.75 per hour.

“He had me do the real crap work,” Cardinal says, remembering hours spent bending pipes and dodging greasy, heavy machines. “It was clear he was raising me to have character.”

Cardinal’s 16th birthday provides some insight into their relationship. He wanted Dad to give him four new tires for his car. But Dad gave him a single tire and told his son he needed to figure out how to buy the other three himself.

A year and a day later, Cardinal’s life was forever changed.

Cardinal was driving through the city of Bell when he saw a car resembling his father’s smashed into a telephone pole. He pulled over to see what had happened and one of the officers asked: “Is your dad named Sam?”


At the hospital, Cardinal had a chance to talk to his dad before the older man was taken into intensive care, but he decided against it. “Dad is kind of formal, this isn’t the time to talk to him,” Cardinal remembers thinking.

His father didn’t make it out of the operating room.

“When Dad died,” Cardinal says with a sigh, “I felt directionless.”

He changed his lifestyle, hanging out with childhood friends, partying, doing drugs and getting arrested more than a dozen times.

But when the cops took him to jail on his 19th birthday and his buddies weren’t there to bail him out, he had no choice but to call his mother. The disappointment on her face was enough to make Cardinal quit drugs and move away from the neighborhood guys.

He turned his school record around too. A few spaced-out quarters at Cerritos College left him a legacy of a 1.68 grade point average and academic probation, but with his father’s business dreams in mind, he retook all the classes he’d failed--”I couldn’t even remember taking them the first time,” he says--and transferred to Cal State Fullerton to study finance.

There, Cardinal rediscovered the business savvy his father had drilled into him. “In college, being a tough guy no longer meant how much you can bench-press,” he says. “After that, I became an academic tough guy.”

A career in business seemed assured. Until his final semester.

One day, Cardinal trotted over to visit his girlfriend at the Anaheim park where she cared for a group of developmentally disabled people. Half a dozen people ran up to hug him when he walked through the door, which isn’t an everyday happening for someone trained in the hands-off world of business. He liked the feeling.


He started volunteering to work with autistic and other developmentally disabled people in Anaheim while finishing his degree, and soon his interest became his obsession. He began to think the unthinkable--giving up big bucks in business to work with the disabled.

Three years later, he got his master’s degree in special education and within another nine years he earned his doctorate at Claremont Graduate School.

While in graduate school, Cardinal was becoming outspoken for what he believed were the rights of disabled people. That meant zipping to professional conferences on the developmentally disabled, including one in San Francisco in 1986. That’s where he ran into Kathy Mahaffey, whom he married.

“I think he really cares about people,” says Kathy Cardinal, 40, who counsels families with severely disabled children in San Bernardino County. “He’s taken a personal responsibility to contribute to the world.”

Still, when you hear stories about Don Cardinal’s work after graduation, it’s a wonder he didn’t abandon the field.

First came a job at a high school for the severely disturbed in Riverside County, where one particularly troublesome girl, a former prostitute, once swung from chandeliers. “You literally would go to the board in the morning to look to see if somebody ran away or committed suicide,” Cardinal says.


A large man, it was his job to pin down violent patients until doctors could inject them with a tranquilizer, he says. When he took a job at Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, he somehow inherited a similar chore.

He remembers having to hold down Fairview’s biggest patient one day, a patient he says “could bite through plastic chairs.” By the time Cardinal had straddled the patient like a horse and wedged his head against the ground, he realized he had to get out of there as soon as possible.

“It gets to be too much sometimes,” he says. “There started to be too much separation between humanity and the type of behavior you have to perform in that kind of environment.”

He arrived at Chapman in 1988 as an associate professor of special education and achieved tenure last year. The Cardinals now live in Chino Hills, where they are raising daughter Megan, 4, and son Nicholas, 1.

At Chapman, Cardinal championed the full inclusion of developmentally disabled students in regular school classrooms--but his big cause became facilitated communication.

“People can’t accept the idea that there’s a real person inside some of these bodies that people had lost hope for,” he says. “That idea doesn’t fit their ideal of a subordinate human being.”



Facilitated communication started spreading in the United States after Douglas Biklen, a professor of special education at Syracuse University, saw the method used in Australia and wrote a story about it in a Harvard University education journal in 1990.

For the past two to three years, professionals and academics in special education and health fields have engaged in bitter intellectual warfare over the method. Detractors say no scientific studies have proven that it works. And often, as the autistic students point down at letters on keyboards, they appear to be looking away.

Others, particularly teachers and parents, say that careful observation of people using the method in their natural environment--school or home--shows that it’s true communication.

Dozens of lawsuits and sexual abuse charges have been linked to the practice. Some of the cases have been thrown out of court because judges have decided that evidence from facilitated communication conversations isn’t reliable.

“If somebody says, ‘I’ve got this easy way for you to communicate to your child for the first time ever and a way to show he’s got more cognitive skills than you thought,’ that’s incredibly seductive,” says Gina Green, director of research at the New England Center for Autism and a facilitated communication critic.

Green and two other autism experts published a letter last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing Cardinal for ignoring what they say are facts showing that facilitated communication does not work.


Says Green: “I’ve seen too many kids deprived of appropriate and effective intervention because of FC, and too many parents and others deluded by the ‘beliefs’ of FC proponents.”

The verbal warriors, both those in favor of the method and against it, stepped up their bickering after the TV newsmagazines picked holes in facilitated communication on national television.

Cardinal was besieged with calls after each show, and has received calls from national magazines and newspapers. “Once, one of the TV news shows called us at home on Easter, during our private time,” Kathy Cardinal says bitterly. “Sometimes this whole thing can get really frustrating.”

Cardinal’s supporters say he has the right kind of enthusiastic personality to handle the questions, and the passion to keep fighting for his beliefs.

“He’s been a wonderful influence on everyone,” says University of Buffalo Professor Judith Duchan, a fellow believer. “We all kind of count on him to be a spokesman. . . . He’s also very funny. He takes issues of criticism seriously, but his way of handling it is to caricature it.”

The debate that consumes his life isn’t just about social justice, Cardinal says. It’s about why many researchers will only accept strictly scientific data to justify conclusions on a subject like facilitated communication.


Cardinal says he is a bridge between pure scientists and qualitative researchers--people like sociologists and anthropologists--who use conclusions gained from observation in the field to support theories.

Duchan is a qualitative researcher who says Cardinal is valuable because he’s a “techie” in an often “fuzzy” field. “I’m not as believable as someone from their own ranks, someone who does very careful experimental research,” says Duchan, who has asked Cardinal to write a chapter in her upcoming textbook.

“That’s why Don is so interesting.”

But Bernard Rimland, a skeptic of facilitated communication, says only scientific research should count in the debate. “Qualitative research is half-baked research,” says Rimland, head of the San Diego-based Autism Research Institute. “The term ‘qualitative research’ is used in an attempt to sound reputable by those who don’t want to go to the trouble of collecting real data.”

In Cardinal’s Chapman office, a fax machine beeps and whines constantly. A self-professed techno-nerd, Cardinal treats his computer and his Newton--a hand-held calendar and organizer that’s his newest purchase--like prized members of the family.

He’s an odd mix, a technology-and-number fanatic who also thrives on human touch. Few of the behaviors or habits of developmentally disabled people bother him, whether they start sniffing his sleeves or yelling in his ear. During the Christmas season each year, he volunteers to play Santa Claus at parties for disabled children “because he doesn’t mind when kids drool or throw up on him,” Kathy Cardinal says. “It’s wonderful.”

What keeps Cardinal interested in the debate are the issues and the people--the families--involved.


Rita Rubin of Whittier is quick to say that Cardinal and his work with facilitated communication has changed her life and that of her 16-year-old autistic daughter, Sue.

When Sue was 13, an instructor at her school in Whittier introduced her to facilitated communication. She was a girl who had always been labeled as developmentally disabled, her mother says, and was told her IQ was about 50. Her mother described her as an automaton.

Now Sue is a junior at Whittier High School, taking advanced placement history and honors English classes with the help of a few aides. Sure, reading Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” gives Sue a hard time, but it’s hard for most kids, her mother jokes.

Cardinal had never seen facilitated communication until he saw Sue Rubin in action back in 1991, he says. He was fascinated, and since then, he has taken Sue and Rita Rubin along to conferences and workshops to demonstrate what he believes is the power of facilitated communication.

“Sue loves him, I think because he really respects her as a valuable person who has her own ideas,” Rita Rubin says. “He has a tremendous amount of empathy for the kids, and at the same time as an academician, he thinks very clearly, so he’s not a fluffy person.”

Back at California High School, teacher Darlene Hanson holds Dan McMillan’s hand firmly as he keeps poking at numbers on a keyboard in front of him, doing what appear to be multiplication problems.


“When I think about Don and who he was before facilitated communication . . . he was always talking about social equality,” Hanson says. “Sometimes I think, ‘Don, when you talked about this issue before facilitation, people didn’t listen to you!’

“But he’s always been giving out the same information: People should be accepted for who they are.”

Donald N. Cardinal

Age: 43.

Native?: Yes; born in Downey.

Family: Married to Kathy Cardinal; they have a daughter, Megan, 4, and a son, Nicholas, 1.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration at Cal State Fullerton; master’s degree in special education at Cal State Fullerton; doctorate in education with a special education emphasis at the Claremont Graduate School.

Past Jobs: Chemical truck driver, press operator in a trophy factory, construction firm owner, assistant controller of finance, special education teacher.

Passions: Baseball and the Los Angeles Dodgers; construction work; playing with his children.

On reason: “Science has always been a support system for me, but it’s never been proof. It’s people’s best guesses.”


On time: “When I’m not either being a father or producing as a teacher, I feel very uncomfortable.”

On intelligence: “Before, my self-concept was still left in high school, when I was pretty convinced that I was behind everyone else. Now I realize that accomplishing things is a lot of hard work--I don’t think I’d score really high on an IQ test, but I work really hard.”