US court overturns FDA’s ban on shock torture of autistic and intellectually disabled students: Our statement

July 10, 2021 Autistics for Autistics is united with other disability rights groups in condemning the July 6 ruling by the US District of Columbia’s Circuit Court overturning the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s ban on the use of a shock torture device on disabled children and adults at the Judge Rotenberg Center, a residential institution and school in Massachusetts.

The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) took the US FDA to court to stop the government’s ban on shock torture. On July 7, the District of Columbia judge stopped the FDA’s 2020 ban, making it once again legal for the JRC to use shock torture. There is no word yet on appeals, but advocates are researching all legal options.

In addition to the FDA’s attempt to ban it, the shock device has also been deemed torture by two UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture as well as Amnesty International because it causes severe trauma and can cause third degree burns and other bodily harm.

A living hell at the JRC
The JRC is the only program in America to use electric shocks on students, some as young as nine years old. Many of the students at the JRC are Black and Latine. About one-third of the students at JRC are fitted with the device.

The FDA-banned device (known as the GED) is composed of electrodes attached to the student’s arms, legs, and torsos that emit a painful electric shock when activated by a worker at the JRC. Residents wear the devices 24 hours a day, including in bed and in the shower and can be shocked many times a day for such “offences” as “covering ears”, according to the JRC’s own guidelines.

One resident, Andre McCollins, was restrained and shocked 31 times for 7 hours because he had not taken his coat off quickly enough when he arrived at the school. He suffered third degree burns and remains traumatized from the event after his mother removed him from the JRC.

Survivor Jennifer Msumba told the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in 2014: “Some actual behaviors I was shocked for were: covering my eyes with my hands, covering (pressurizing) my ears, tic-like body movements, wrapping my foot around the leg of my chair, not answering staff within 5 seconds, saying the word “no”, shaking my head, tightening my fingers for more than 2 seconds, waving my hands in front of my face…and attempt to remove restraints. Those are just a few.”

Abusive practices that Disability Rights International (DRI) classifies as torture, including deprivation of food, being locked alone in a small space (seclusion), restraint, electric shocks, verbal abuse, dehumanization and other abuse occur daily at the JRC. According to a psychologist who visited the JRC representing the New York State Department of Education: “No other class of citizen in the United States could be subjected to this.” At least six students have died at the JRC as a result of its practices.

Electric shock is a form of torture that has been used on detainees such as political prisoners in Latin America during the 1980s. Its use by the JRC reflects a continuum of racist and ableist violence, torture and coercive control. This is not history: it is still happening in America. To understand why a court would overrule an FDA ban on the GED, we need to understand that America and Canada’s residential institutions–and its ABA centres and classrooms–are built on segregating and dehumanizing developmentally disabled people.

Institutions such as the JRC, with long histories of endemic abuse, cannot be rehabilitated or reformed to be “trauma-informed” or “sanctuaries”. They need to be shut down.

Join the movement to #StopTheShock. The American autistic rights group, ASAN, as well as other groups and individuals in the US, are now organizing to challenge the court’s decision and stop the JRC from using shock torture. You can learn more in the coming days and weeks from the ASAN website or on social media using the hashtag #StopTheShock.