The Judge Rotenberg Centre (JRC), an institution for children and adults with severe disabilities in the US, is currently fighting to be allowed to electrocute the people entrusted to its care. This sounds like a story from an antiquated, less understanding time, however, for the disabled individuals in the JRC, it is a horrifying reality. Parents and guardians actually consent to this sickening practice. The centre is a last resort for many families as they struggle to find somewhere that is equipped to deal with their loved ones’ needs. Although the pain that must be felt watching a disabled love one struggle and be kicked out of clinics and programmes must be enormous, this cannot justify the use of such a disgusting ‘treatment’ on some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

An electric shock device, the Gradual Electronic Decelerator (GED) is taped to some of the residents at the JRC. It is controlled by remote and, according to the JRC, is used as a last resort tool with some of its hardest to control residents when they are demonstrating extremely dangerous behaviours. What this translates to is inflicting pain on children and adults who are already suffering, instead of using non-violent methods of de-escalation or help. The situations that they cite include head-banging, self-biting, and attacking others.

The GED is a violent tool and it is only used by this one facility. In fact, the UN in 2010 called the practices at the centre ‘torture’. The FDA ruled in 2014 that the device could not be used without ‘significant harm’. However, it took them until 2020 to ban the use of the device. This is a striking disservice to the individuals at the JRC. Some of the residents there have spent decades at the controversial clinic and it is hard to imagine the harm that they may have been forced to endure.

Those who the GED has been used on have reported burns and skin damage as well as psychological stress. Some who have left the centre have complained of accidental shocks. It is no wonder that this device caused distress and anxiety, as the use of it at the facility has been capricious. One student in 2002 was restrained for 7 hours and shocked 31 times for not taking off his jacket, Another individual was shocked 77 times in 2007 after a prank caller purportedly told a staff member to do so. The clinic has said that shocks are limited to 10 a day and after that, a doctor’s permission is needed for more shocks to be administered.

The ban from the FDA has been removed by a judge after a court case by the JRC. They are so attached to using this torture device that they are willing to go to court, regardless of the sentiment from the UN, disability advocacy groups and disabled people who have attended the clinic. What is perhaps most heartbreaking about this is that parents and guardians are supporting the clinic in this sordid battle to be able to electrocute their loved ones.

These families are desperate, that much is clear, and I have no doubts that many of them think that this is what is best for their relative. However, no amount of desperation can justify the torture of these vulnerable people. So often, autonomy is taken from disabled people like they’re not people with bodily autonomy. People are often surprised by how much of an issue this is. For instance, disabled people across the world face forced sterilisation.

In Spain, a disabled person could be (permanently) sterilised against their will until last year; it’s estimated that over 1000 people were forcibly sterilised in the decade leading up to 2020. Disabled people are people, with rights and dreams and feelings. It should feel redundant to say this. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Many disabled people may not know if they want children or not, especially biological children, but the idea that the choice could be stripped away from them, even temporarily is abhorrent. The fact that it is seen as permissible, even by a (hopefully) small minority that a disabled person should be electrocuted or sterilised makes me and I’m certain over disabled people question are worth. Are disabled people so different to non-disabled people that such inhumane treatment is justified when it’s to us?

Whilst it must be recognised that there will be disabled people who lack capacity in the legal and medical sense (the ability to use and understand information to make a decision), it is undoubtable that they would not consent to being shocked. Under what circumstances would you allow someone to be able to shock you at their will, especially with the track record of a centre like the JRC? The tweets and sentiment behind #stoptheshock is clear: this practice must be stopped. It is cruel, it violates the autonomy and right to basic respect and care of the people who are subjected to it.

We must ask ourselves, do and should parents have the ability to consent to their children being subjected to torture? The only answer, in my opinion and I hope yours, is no.

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Meg Hopkins

When not doing her degree, Meg (she/her) can probably be found procrastinating with her pet cat Pablo. She loves reading, particularly Terry Pratchett and trying to avoid getting lost in Welsh mountains.