Legal Torture: The Use of Shock Treatment on Individuals With Disabilities

Although deeply inhumane, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center continues to administer the treatment. In light of this unethicality, an outspoken activist movement has arisen, led by the viral hashtag #StoptheShock.

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Although deeply inhumane, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center continues to administer the treatment. In light of this unethicality, an outspoken activist movement has arisen, led by the viral hashtag #StoptheShock.

The United States is considered to be highly progressive in its treatment of individuals with physical, intellectual and emotional disabilities. Fortunately, most educational facilities and organizations across the nation employ humane and compassionate methods to modify the behavior patterns of people with disabilities. Nevertheless, to this day, many people with intellectual disabilities and severe behavioral challenges still face deeply unethical, inhumane methods of intervention. In fact, some adults, adolescents and children with autism and other intellectual disabilities endure electric shock as a form of behavioral punishment.

While electric shock remains a relatively uncommon intervention for intellectual disabilities, one educational facility still uses shock treatment on a routine basis to modify the behavior of those with disabilities. Located in Canton, Massachusetts, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) continues to use a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) on students with autism and various other special needs. By attaching electrodes to students’ skin, staff at the JRC deliver intense electrical shocks to punish undesirable behaviors. The students at the JRC range from age 3 to adulthood, and all struggle with severe disabilities, behavioral challenges or psychiatric problems.

Under the façade of ethical behavior analysis and evidence-based intervention, the JRC effectively tortures its students, most of whom are unable to advocate for themselves or provide consent to any extreme procedures. At the JRC, shock treatment is administered as a means of altering behavioral patterns and deterring students from engaging in unwanted behaviors. After a student displays an unwanted or undesirable behavior, they receive a painful shock to the skin through electrodes. Over time, this is designed to discourage the repetition of such behavior in the future, as the student associates the behavior with pain and fear. On a regular basis, the JRC shocks students for displaying a variety of behaviors, ranging from self-injurious actions to screaming to hand gestures. At times, the behaviors are not dangerous in and of themselves, although the Center claims that these behaviors can escalate.

The JRC is the only educational facility in the entire nation that still employs electric shock against students with disabilities. According to the JRC, shock treatment is a last resort and is only given to individuals whose behavior is dangerous to themselves and others. Ultimately, the goal of electric shock treatment is to mitigate maladaptive behavior, prevent future self-harm and reduce aggressive tendencies. However, countless safe, humane interventions can help students achieve these same results without unnecessary trauma.

The JRC emphasizes data that indicates electric shock reduces self-injurious actions and other dangerous behavior. However, this does not justify the actions of the JRC in the slightest. Regardless of the evidence that supports the efficacy of electric shock treatment, the side effects are deeply detrimental to individuals’ physical health, as well as mental well-being.

Interestingly, there is no evidence that electric shock treatment is viable as a long-term solution for students with extreme behavioral problems. Many students at the JRC are forced to wear their electrodes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, they appear to be subjected to this behavioral contingency indefinitely, as the procedure has not faded or been eliminated. In and of themselves, these pieces of information indicate that shock treatment is not an effective intervention. If anything, electric shock is a temporary fix to complex behavioral challenges.

Shock treatment not only fails to provide sustainable solutions to students’ dangerous behavior but leaves them with genuine and profound trauma. Some students who experience shock treatment develop severe burns to their skin, while others become catatonic. Moreover, the traumatic nature of being shocked can exacerbate existing mental health challenges and sometimes worsen behavioral and emotional disorders.

The power dynamics at the JRC are abundantly clear and undoubtedly at play. First and foremost, all of the students who receive shock treatment at the JRC are unable to effectively speak up for themselves. Given that shock treatment exposes students to significant pain and discomfort, this already creates a highly precarious and sincerely dangerous situation. Furthermore, the demographics of the student body at the JRC also raise alarm. The majority of the students at the JRC are Black and Latino, with white students comprising only 17.4% of the school’s population.

Undeniably, the use of electric shock is an undignified procedure that violates the basic human rights of people with intellectual and emotional disabilities. Shock treatment is not only deeply controversial within the U.S., but on an international scale. In 2010, a renowned advocacy organization — Mental Disability Rights International — filed an appeal to the United Nations explaining the torturous nature of electric shock and condemning the JRC. After reading this report, U.N. torture investigators found that electric shock devices met the criteria of torture, and subsequently violated the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the GED — the shock device commonly used by the JRC — thereby recognizing the archaic and inhumane nature of electric shock treatment. This was a very extreme decision for the FDA, which has only banned two other devices in its entire existence. However, this milestone decision did not last long. One year later, in 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the FDA’s ban. The Appeals Court overturned the ban on the basis that the FDA lacked the jurisdiction to make such a monumental decision, as the matter pertained to the practice of medicine. Additionally, the court ruled that the FDA did not possess the authority to ban the device only for specific purposes, such as behavior modification for those with disabilities.

Although the Appeals Court ruling was a major setback, most people — including disability advocates and those in the field of psychology — agree that shock treatment is highly unethical. In fact, in December 2021, the Massachusetts Association for Behavior Analysis (MassABA) composed a position statement that deemed the procedure unethical, inhumane and inappropriate. In doing this, the association openly condemned the JRC, which is not only located within Massachusetts but operates under the guise of behavior analysis. In addition, the MassABA has also issued a position statement echoing humanitarian concerns and indicating the availability of other effective and compassionate approaches.

Although the JRC remains in operation, an outspoken activist movement has arisen, shedding light on the torture and inhumanity committed by the JRC. This movement is largely spearheaded by autistic self-advocates who represent the needs of individuals with disabilities who cannot speak up for themselves. Most recently, a social media campaign has emerged, led by the viral hashtag #StoptheShock.

Thus far, the JRC has inexplicably gotten away with committing inhumane acts and circumvented any punishment or reprimand. However, there is hope for reform. The FDA has succeeded once in banning the use of electric shock, proving that change is possible. With the establishment of the self-advocate movement, more and more individuals with intellectual disabilities have gained a platform on social media; for the first time in history, these marginalized individuals have the chance to advocate for their needs and bring attention to the injustice being perpetrated against members of their community. It is essential that these procedures are eliminated, that all individuals with disabilities are treated humanely and compassionately and that their voices are heard.

Writer Profile

Nora Weiss

George Washington University
Political Science, Psychology

Nora Weiss is a rising junior at George Washington University. Writing has been a lifelong passion and tool for self-expression for Nora, and she is very excited to be part of the Study Breaks team.

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