Updated: Jun 22
This blog post contains sensitive stories and triggering language about electric shock, torture, and abuse.
When people think about electric shock therapy, they often imagine a rundown institution that closed decades ago. They imagine a torture device that would never be used today. But in reality, that institution is modern-day and that device is still being used on people with disabilities in the U.S. right now.
At Judge Rotenberg Education Center in Canton, Massachusetts, the graduated electronic decelerator (GED) is hooked up to 55 residents with disabilities 24/7. The GED is designed to modify behavior by electrically shocking people when they’re behaving inappropriately, especially when self-harm or the harm of others is involved. The concept is that the pain from the GED will teach the person to no longer do that behavior.
While some people claim that the center and the GED saved their lives and families by modifying the behavior of their children, human rights advocates and former residents are calling for the center to be shut down and for electric shock therapy – a treatment the United Nations has labeled as “torture” – to be ended.
And there is hope. Just before the pandemic, the FDA banned the device. But, due to drawn-out court battles that have been delayed because of COVID-19, the GED is still being used and could continue to be used for years to come at this center.
While the center claims that its practices have changed in recent years, creating a safer environment for students, their history proves how horrific their practices truly are. In 2002, a resident was restrained and shocked 31 times after he didn’t take off his jacket when he was told to. He spent more than a month in the hospital after the incident.
Then, in 2007, another student was shocked 77 times in one night after a prank caller told staff to do so. The director of the center at the time, Matthew Israel, was later charged and indicted with obstruction of justice for destroying surveillance of this incident.
Not only do these shocks cause physical harm in the moment, but the repeated experience can also lead people to live in constant fear and suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. Not to mention that these methods are most often used on non-speaking autistic individuals who may be unable to verbalize the pain they are experiencing or what brought them to the original behavior that led to the use of the GED.
The disability community has dealt with a long history of segregation, seclusion, restraints, eugenics, and other exploitations that have been labeled as human rights abuses. It’s difficult to live in a country where basic human rights are still not the standard for those with disabilities.
How can we expect disability rights to move forward in our country when we can’t even do the bare minimum by completely banning devices that use pain to “teach” disabled children?
MCIE knows that when learners exhibit challenging behavior, it is often communicating an unmet need. Before we focus on modifying behavior, we need to think about how to set up the environment to support the learner, and then ask what their behavior is telling us. We need to create safe spaces that draw upon students’ strengths. We need to join the fight to protect the rights of children and adults with disabilities.