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."