By Liza Citron
Update 10/4/2021 3:18 PM to include additional information.
We may wish to think that the atrocities of institutionalization and the legacy of Willowbrook (Beatings, Burns and Betrayal: The Willowbrook Scandal’s Legacy) are far behind us. There are currently institutions in existence that disturbingly mirror those of the past. The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) in Canton, MA, is one such institution. Opened in 1971 as the Behavior Research Institute, the JRC has come under fire for the use of electroshock devices to control residents. Residents at the school are developmentally or emotionally disabled or fall under the vague heading of displaying “autistic-like behaviors.” They are also approximately 90% from the greater New York City metropolitan area and 90% of minority ethnicity. The high proportion of residents from minority ethnic groups suggests a compounding stigma of race and disability.
While taxpayer-funded through the public school system, the JRC curriculum is reportedly nonexistent. Students are often placed in front of a computer with little active teaching. In addition, the center’s distance from where most of its residents usually live leaves individuals, families, and communities out of the accountability process.
The JRC uses graduated electronic decelerators (GED), delivering as much as 90 mA per two-second shock. For reference, a cattle prod delivers a shock of up to 10 mA for a fraction of a second. The GED is worn like a backpack by the disabled individual and weighs up to 10 pounds. Teachers or other authority figures use remote controls to administer shocks for unwanted behavior. The practice is governed by controversial applied behavioral analysis (ABA) methods and conditioning methods described by behaviorist B.F. Skinner in the 1930s and 40s.
JRC staff administer shocks in response to innocuous behaviors such as brief moments of closed eyes or diverted attention. In addition, actions such as crying out while being shocked result in shocks. Regardless of the effectiveness of Skinnerian or ABA methodologies themselves, such treatment can only be described as horrific and torturous. Residents are in a seemingly endless cycle of shocks, and some residents become nonresponsive. At least six people have died at the JRC since its founding.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of GED devices on humans in March 2020. The GED-4, delivering the highest voltage shock, was never approved for use in the first place. In July of 2021, the D.C. Circuit Court overturned the ban, stating it was out of the scope and jurisdiction of the FDA to do so. The JRC argued, and the appeals court judges agreed, that the FDA did not have the authority to enforce the ban. In essence, use of the GEDs could not be banned specifically for the purpose of behavior modification. The devices either had to be prohibited or approved outright, in all circumstances.
The legacy of Willowbrook and institutionalization are not as far away as some might think. Individuals on the internet and in- person continue to speak about the conditions for residents at the JRC. Many of them are disabled themselves.
Everyone, abled and disabled alike, needs to understand the implications of allowing the JRC to continue shocking vulnerable youth. Read articles like this one and the ones referenced here—sign petitions. Write to your state and federal elected officials asking why taxpayer dollars fund the torment of young people with disabilities. And ask them why better community supports aren’t funded for this vulnerable population. #StopTheShock #StopShockingAutisticPeople
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