The other day the FDA announced that it was placing a ban on all electric shock devices used to punish children and adults with disabilities. Perhaps you were unaware that this was necessary. How, you might ask, could such torture be happening in 2020?
The United States has a lengthy history of mistreating the disabled, including segregation, seclusion and outright physical and sexual abuse. The nation’s most “popular” method of behavior control—Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA—was founded on aversive techniques, including withholding food and water and using electric shock. While ABA no longer (overtly) condones these techniques in the schools and homes, institutions such as the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) have no such compunctions.
At last year’s AutCom conference, a JRC survivor, Jennifer Msumba, who is autistic, described her experiences there. The details were graphic and upsetting, and a few parents had to lead their children from the presentation because it was obviously having an effect on them. Jennifer recounted how each resident was forced to wear a heavy GED (Graduated Electronic Decelerator) on their backs 24/7, even while sleeping and in the shower. The shocks were delivered by staff, and could come at any moment, usually in response to failing to follow a direction. The shocks were extremely painful—on the pain scale of 1-10, it was described as a 10.
In a previous blog I discussed how many autistics have a form of apraxia, in which their bodies do not obey their minds. Essentially, if they could comply, they would. Imagine being in a place where you are repeatedly being punished for something that you cannot control, and being unable to explain that to your captors. What level of hell would Dante assign that?
Kudos to the FDA for this landmark decision, and to all the people who advocated for this ruling. The JRC has 180 days to comply with the ruling, which they are appealing. However, Nancy Weiss of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities writes that if this particular method of punishment is banned, the JRC may return to “a reliance on other aversive procedures (water spray, hot sauce, slaps, rolling pinches and the visual screening helmet -- procedures they used to use regularly before the GED was developed), whether they discharge people or if they adopt more humane practices.” Advocates must be ever-vigilant.