The United States has made tremendous legal and social strides for the civil rights of people with disabilities. Society has evolved to a place where discrimination is, in the very least, unacceptable to many and rarer than it once was.
But there’s still plenty for advocates of people with disabilities to fight for. And one school in Massachusetts highlights that fact in a gruesome and altogether heartbreaking way.
A controversial private school — The Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts — has been using electric shocks for behavioral adjustment on special needs students for many years. It’s the only school in America that still utilizes the archaic “treatment.” And in a sad reminder of why we need to continue fighting, a judge in Massachusetts ruled this week that the school can continue using the vile practice.
How are Electric Shocks a “Treatment?”
At the center of the school’s ongoing controversy is a device known as a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (“GED”), an “aversive conditioning” tool that many define as torture, including the United Nations.
GED is used to alter a person’s behavior by physically hurting them with electric shocks. The idea, which countless professionals and organizations believe is misguided at best, is that the recipient of these electric shocks will stop that behavior; they’ll associate that behavior with physical pain and essentially be frightened into continuing that behavior.
GED should not be confused with Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), which is a widely accepted practice used in mental health to alter brain chemistry and reverse symptoms of mental illness, most notably depression. GED, by comparison, is not always carefully regulated or administered by health professionals.
The use of GED as a treatment has been widely criticized by health organizations around the globe. It’s medicinal and therapeutic value has been questioned, if not flatly rejected, by health professionals and organizations worldwide. So to see a school still using the practice in the United States is rather unfathomable.
Andre McCollins, a Victim of GED Whose Story Inspired a Movement
In 2012, video leaked online of a teenage student with developmental disabilities, Andre McCollins, being “treated” with GED a decade earlier in 2002. Due to the horrifying and graphic nature of that video, we at ABILITY do not feel it should be displayed or linked to in this article.
According to an article from the New Yorker, The school was reportedly giving backpacks loaded with the device to their students. School staff could then remotely administer electric shocks using an activator whenever they felt a student was misbehaving.
In the controversial video, Andre was strapped face down to a restraining board and shocked thirty-one times, bloodcurdling heart-wrenching screams echoing through the room as they press on.
He begs for the torture to stop. It doesn’t.
Andre’s mother sued the Judge Rotenberg Center and won her suit, but the center is still using GED today after efforts by the FDA and the State of Massachusetts to ban the practice have failed.
Judge Katherine Fields in Bristol County claimed that the State of Massachusetts had failed to demonstrate that the use of GED “does not conform to the accepted standard of care for treating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
Banning the Use of GED is an Ongoing Battle
The Judge Rotenberg Center is the only school in the United States still using GED for aversion therapy on children and adults with disabilities.
The practice of using electroshock to alter behavior has existed in various forms for decades. Some so-called “conversion therapy” camps have used the practice on LGBT individuals in the hopes of curbing their homosexuality, shocking them with electricity in an effort to thwart gay tendencies.
The use of electroshock aversion therapy is seen as torture by a large number of organizations, as well as local and State governments all across the United States and international organizations, including the United Nations.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been fighting since 2013 to ban the practice. The FDA, which has been condemning the practice since 2013, issued a proposal in 2016 to ban the use of GED therapy, though that effort is also still ongoing. And a number of advocacy and civil rights organizations vocally oppose the use of GED therapy, including ADAPT and the ACLU.
In 2013, the United Nations released a report from the Special Rapporteur on Torture that states in no uncertain terms that the use of GED therapy violates the UN Convention against Torture, singling out the Judge Rotenberg center specifically.
Electric Shocks Are Not Treatment. They’re Torture
The use of electric shocks on people with disabilities as some form of behavior modification therapy isn’t a political or partisan issue. This isn’t an issue where varying opinions hold equal merit.
This is a binary issue. It’s zero versus one. True versus false. Right versus wrong. Electric shocks are not treatment… they’re torture. That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact.
No person in the twenty-first century should ever be subjected to cruel or unusual punishments in an effort to modify their behavior. This practice is disgusting and frankly does not belong in any era, let alone contemporary times.
The Judge Rotenberg Center’s use of GED is inhumane, unjustifiable, inexcusable, and wholly and entirely wrong. It is not therapy. It is not treatment. It is unacceptable. It’s torture. And it’s nothing else.