The Judge Rotenberg Center is a highly unusual residential facility in Massachusetts serving intellectually and developmentally disabled students. It’s been controversial since its founding, and it has become a center of global attention after a number of news stories revealing one of the key things that sets it apart from other facilities: The use of “aversives” to behaviorally train students, particularly electric shock therapy.
Many disability advocates argue that aversives can be in fact be dangerous in addition to dehumanizing, and that they are also not terribly effective when it comes to achieving the desired goal. A former student says that: “Electric shocks only work as long as you are receiving them. They don’t teach you how to change your life.” At the Judge Rotenberg Center, students wear packs on their bodies with trailing leads connected to electrodes. Teachers and other personnel can issue shocks remotely in response to undesirable behaviors in an attempt to extinguish those behaviors by teaching students to associate them with pain.
Some supporters claim this approach is “lifesaving” and totally changes the lives of inmates, making it possible for them to engage more fully with the world around them. Satisfied students of the center and their families are often used as examples of model behavior produced by the shock therapy, while disgruntled or worried ex-students, their parents, and advocates are less likely to be heard.
Opponents say the supposed benefits of shock therapy come at a high price for these students, and that the use of aversive behavioral training like this is shameful and horrific. While the concept may be based in behavioral psychology, many argue that it’s inhumane. Students may be shocked scores of times over the course of a day in addition to being isolated or put in restraints. The Judge Rotenberg Center may be the only facility in the world that routinely shocks its students.
After being the subject of investigation, lawsuits and scrutiny, the facility is under fire again from advocates who want to see the end of the Judge Rotenberg Center, joining those who have been calling for it to be closed altogether since its educational style is so far from modern approaches to accessible education for disabled students. Numerous therapy options are available to help intellectually and developmentally disabled people learn coping strategies, develop communication tactics and work with the people around them. They do not have to involve tactics some compare to torture.
Numerous groups joined together earlier this month to send a letter to the federal government, asking it to stop funding the Judge Rotenberg School. That’s right: your tax dollars are paying to torture disabled students, some of whom have lived at the facility for decades. The missive from groups like The Arc and The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law was sent in the hopes that a recent warning letter from the FDA over the use of the electric shock devices could act as leverage, creating an opening to finally put an end to the deeply twisted approach to education and therapy practiced at the Judge Rotenberg Center.
Such practices may have been popular a century ago, but they should be long-dead now.
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