When Treatment Becomes Torture: This is What Disabled Oppression Looks Like


So-called “Therapy” (Claytia G.)

Every day for close to twenty years, disabled children, youth, and adults have been abused and tortured at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, MA where torture is described as treatment, and punishment is described as therapy. Students at the JRC must wear backpacks with wires attached to their legs and arms that bear electrodes designed to give electric shocks that are more powerful and more painful than police tasers.

The JRC claims that this is the only “treatment” that works for those with severe behavioral challenges, but we know better. Subjecting people to torture and forcing them to witness the same torture of their fellow students is not going to eliminate problematic behavior, but it can and will lead to further psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.

Some parents of children at the JRC believe that this electric shock treatment has saved their children’s lives. The lies that have spewed from the JRC’s founder, Matthew Israel, are many. Israel claims that students are only shocked for the “most severe” behavior, such as self-harm or attacking staff. In reality, students at the JRC have been shocked for standing up without permission and swearing – behavior that in an ordinary school, whether for disabled students or not, would receive, at most, a verbal reprimand.

Israel insists that the only alternative to electric shock is the use of psychotropic drugs so powerful that students would be rendered essentially comatose. Yet whether he and his compatriots will admit it or not, there are other programs and methods delivered across the country that serve people with the most significant disabilities and the same severe behavioral challenges that do not engage in the use of torture or abuse of any kind in order to elicit results. Positive behavior supports and holistic interventions that consider the underlying causes of self-injurious and destructive behavior have better short and long-term efficacy than electric shock aversives.

It’s worth noting that the JRC is the only institution in the entire country that subjects its students to electric shock. People with the most significant disabilities and behavioral challenges live everywhere and receive services, supports, and therapies, everywhere. Yet only in one state do they receive torture in the name of treatment.


“…they receive torture in the name of treatment” (Claytia G.)

Despite the continued rallying cries against the JRC, it is imperative to understand pre-existing societal attitudes toward disability and disabled people in order to comprehend why the JRC has been allowed to continue to exist for so long and why the JRC lobbyists, particularly parents and staff, have continued to be so effective in persuading the Massachusetts legislature to refrain from banning electric shock.

Disabled people have long been subjected to the process of othering — that is, of creating an attitudinal barrier of an Us and a Them. Marginalized as life unworthy of life, presumed to be incompetent, and relegated to mass unemployment and homelessness, we have long struggled to be recognized as people equal in worth and value as our non-disabled peers. Yet rather than acknowledging the deeply ingrained ableist attitude in society, that our lives are of lesser quality and not worth living, our communities and families have bought into these lies and created a culture that is obsessed with medicalizing every aspect of disability. Society demands that disability be eliminated — it must be fixed or cured.

And when our lives have already been deemed less than worthy of living or having, when dehumanization becomes a regular feature of news stories about tragedies that befall us, it becomes very easy to assume that it is appropriate to subject us to treatment that would surely elicit mass public rage if it were suggested that the same treatment were appropriate for use on terrorists, convicted prisoners, or animals. The JRC’s public relations strategy of painting us as not-quite-human will continue to function because it fits into the paradigm that already exists in society for viewing disability.

It is true that disabled people, particularly those with the most significant disabilities, may require more intensive supports and services than many non-disabled people and even some other disabled people. Yet without the holistic approach that considers all aspects of an individual’s life and abilities, and works to emphasize strengths and abilities while mitigating difficulties caused by impairment, it is too easy for service providers and clinicians to fall into the trap of medicalization and to view every characteristic as evidence of a pathology that needs to be eliminated rather than in the full context of its reasons for existence. Services and supports are about respecting a person’s human rights and dignity, and allowing disabled people equal access and opportunity across all facets of life and community. Services and supports, appropriately and respectfully done, look nothing like the JRC’s version of “treatment.”

What happens daily at the JRC is a violation of our rights both individually and collectively as surely as the mass disenfranchisement of any other marginalized group of people, and ought to serve not merely as a call to action against egregious human rights violations but also as an indictment against the society in which we live for perpetuating the attitudes that have allowed the JRC’s practices to continue.

Lydia Brown, Slant Editor

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4 thoughts on “When Treatment Becomes Torture: This is What Disabled Oppression Looks Like

  1. All fucking day long this. I’m glad we have people speaking up and making themselves heard over the rabble that exists in the world, rabble which perpetuates bad ideas and false beliefs.

  2. shameful, this reminds me of the movie one flew over the cockoo nest where shock therapy was used as punishment for disobedience and the patients were treated like criminals rather than ill. threats of beatings, food deprivation were all used as tools of oppression and cruelty. I would guess with certainty this happens in real life in places. sad to hear they do that to disabled people too. shameful

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