FDA Must #StoptheShock “Therapy” Used To Torture Disabled People

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Erin Vallely

**Trigger Warning: Disability Abuse, Torture, and Judge Rotenberg Center**

Imagine if someone shocked you every time you did not do EXACTLY what they wanted you to, at the speed or in the manner they wanted. You could be subjected to very painful, and medically dangerous shocks every time you did not make your bed correctly, if you ate too fast or too slow or if you spoke without being spoken to. You could be shocked for anything, or, for nothing.  Would you live like that? Would you let that happen to others? What many people do not realize is that this happens every day to disabled children, teens, and adults at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts. That’s why members of the national disability rights group ADAPT are currently in Washington, D.C. outside the home of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Director Scott Gottlieb, who has the power to make the torture of disabled bodies cease.

What is ADAPT Demanding And Why?

ADAPT members have been camped across from the home of FDA Director Scott Gottlieb since Friday, March 9th and are demanding that he officialize regulations that would immediately end the use of electric shock devices to control institutionalized disabled children and adults. The regulations banning this torture practice were drafted two years ago but never signed, thus rendering the act useless. The Judge Rotenberg Center is the only facility that acknowledges using such tactics currently, a practice they continue even though it is now illegal for use on any other group of individuals, including the worst criminals and in terrorist interrogations. 

Skin Shock “Therapy”?

The Judge Rotenberg Center uses contingent electric shock “therapy” with graduated electronic decelerator (GED) devices on many individuals[1]. Those subjected to this “treatment” are forced to wear backpacks holding the battery connected to large electrodes on their bodies. An individual might have one or up to five electrodes on their arms, legs, thighs, stomach, fingertips, and bottoms of their feet. If a student does something the “school” deems inappropriate or unwanted behavior, staff can simply press a button to shock the individual. This is supposed to “teach” individuals how to behave.  Individuals with GED devices can be shocked for countless things including but not limited to getting up without permission, slamming a door, making repetitive hand movements, threatening to break behavioral contracts, saying “no” or refusing to do something, not making eye contact, sharing an item without permission, making noise or complaining about anything. 

Such aversion therapy controls the disabled individual by making them live in fear. Individuals who have undergone this method of control report nightmares of their experience, out of control anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many government and independent organizations have investigated and publicly denounced the practice including, but not limited to, Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, Massachusetts Department of Education, Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and Department of Education, California Department of Social Services, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, The Arc of the United States, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc., Family Alliance to Stop Abuse and Neglect, Mental Health America, and dozens of others

The United Nations has classified the practice as a violation of the Convention against Torture and questions the concept that “medical necessity may ever be used to justify a treatment practice that induces severe emotional or physical pain.” The report explains that the federal government must outlaw Level III aversive punishments, which includes skin-shock “therapy,” are to ensure they are brought to an end in the United States because state laws will not be enough. The FDA has listened to testimony from victims of this torture and has already written the regulations that would stop this horrific treatment of disabled individuals. Signing the proposal to stop the abuse would take mere moments. Scott Gottlieb could be a hero with a simple signature. He is currently choosing not to be.

What You Can Do

ADAPT members are currently camped across from FDA Director Scott Gottlieb’s home in Washington DC. If you are in the area, look for ADAPT, and if you see them, stop and visit to learn more about the situation and how you can help protect vulnerable individuals from being tormented. If you would like to donate funds to help the activists buy food and other vital supplies you can donate to their GoFundMe webpage found here

ADAPT asks everyone to call the FDA at 888-463-6332 and demand the director do his duty by finalizing the regulations to make skin shock “therapy” illegal. You can tweet FDA Director Scott Gottlieb at @SGottliebFDA (work) and @ScottGottliebMD (personal). Lastly, call on your government representatives and the President, to stand with ADAPT and convince Gottlieb to do the right thing. No one deserves this torture.


[1] There is an important difference between contingent electric shock, as described above, and electrostatic or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECT is intended to be administered while the person receiving it is sedated, and is used to electrically alter brain waves through artificially inducing seizures. ECT is typically considered a treatment for depression. ECT also has a history of frequent involuntary and coercive use, which is also deeply ableist and abusive; however, there are people who voluntarily give their informed consent to receive ECT.