(This is part one because of some other stuff about institutionalization and its discontents that I want to comment on after I expel some more mucus. It needs a response, but I want to get this out first. I’ll just state briefly here that while this is a horrific practice in and of itself, it’s not all that deserves condemnation.)
You know that cliche about how ignorance is bliss? Well, privilege is ignorance. Because I do not live with a disability, I can remain oblivious–for now, anyway–to the discrimination people with disabilities face. When I walk to the subway station, I don’t have to keep track of the curb cuts. When I get off at my subway stop, I don’t have to think about whether or not the elevator’s working. When I use the bathroom, I don’t have to notice whether the guy ahead of me in line uses the handicapped stall or the smaller one, because I can take whichever one is left over. Anti-discrimination laws defeated? Hate crimes on the rise? Social support systems facing budget cuts? Not my problem!
And because of my privilege, I did not know about this:
(not sure how to sort out the triggers here, so I’ll just go with very disturbing.)
Israel [director of the Behavioral Research Institute] said he was considering employing his harshest punishment, an electrical shock device known as the Self-Injurious Behavior Inhibiting System, or SIBIS, that would require a court’s permission to use.
SIBIS was invented to stop such behavior as hair pulling and head banging exhibited by an estimated 160,000 people with retardation or autism. A band of electronic sensors is wrapped around a user’s head. When the device detects sudden motion, like that of the head being hit, it sends a mild electric shock through the wearer’s body. The sensation is described as feeling like a hard snap of a rubber band. This negative reinforcement is supposed to teach people not to hit themselves.
Some professionals, like Israel, argue that SIBIS is a useful and humane tool of last resort to stop people like Janine [an autistic child] from hurting themselves. Others, like Tom Nerney, the former director of the American Autism Society, have fought for state bans on SIBIS, which he calls a crude and ineffective “torture.” Instead, he points to nonaversive programs such as CSAAC to prove that there are humane, effective options.
A scientific panel brought together by the National Institutes of Health backed the use of such aversive devices in 1989. Nerney called the NIH process flawed, noting that some conference members were scientists who had helped develop SIBIS or whose universities had a financial interest in it. Dr. Duane Alexander of NIH, for example, was an unpaid member of the scientific advisory board to the American Foundation for Autistic Children, whose founders, Leslie and Mooza Grant, invented SIBIS. Despite the objections of Nerney and others, SIBIS has been slowly winning acceptance by psychologists and educators around the country, even being sold directly to school districts to use on children with autist or retardation.
BRI would come to rely heavily on SIBIS. Only a few students were considered candidates for being shocked when I met Janine [in 1989]. Three years later, in the summer of 1992, SIBIS was used on at least forty-two of BRI’s approximately sixty-three students. Dependence on the shock device drew the institution into a soaring spiral of punishments. The initial benefits soon faded as students adapted to the shocks and Israel debated how to make the punishment effective again. He considered a new generation of the shock device that delivered three times the electrical jolt. But Dr. Ogden Lindsley, the chairman of BRI’s senior peer review board, scoffed at that as too soft and “a blueprint for adaptation” once again by the students. Lindsley’s advice to Israel was to up the pain threshold so dramatically that once shocked the student would truly be deterred from acting out again. “You should punish maximumly to get rid of the ongoing behavior,” Lindsley explained. “These kids are case-hardened. We need something different.”
No Pity, Joseph Shapiro
1992. What else happened in 1992? Well, Bill Clinton ran for election for the first time. Melrose Place premiered. So did the new incarnation of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as host. Silence of the Lambs won the Oscar for Best Picture. 1992 was the year of the LA riots, and the year of Hurricane Andrew.
Doesn’t seem that long ago, does it?
1992 was also fourteen years and counting before this practice was abolished. Yup, it’s still going on:
At first glance, the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, looks like something out of Disneyland. It’s a kind of magical place, with plush rooms and lots of games and adventures for the students. But it is also the only place in the country that uses aversion shock therapy on its students — some of whom are as young as six years old.
The center was founded by Dr. Matthew Israel, who designed a shock device called a GED, or gradual electronic decelerator. The students, who have few options when it comes to schooling due to behavioral issues or mental disabilities, wear up to five electrodes at a time strapped to their arms and legs. The gadget itself is housed in a fanny pack worn by the student. If a student acts out or becomes violent with staff members, the student gets a two second shock to the skin.
Given the picture of Israel painted in No Pity, and given everything I’ve read from people who have been in institutions, it’s extremely unlikely that “acting out”–or “violent with staff members”–is a narrow category defined without prejudice. And–surprise!–it’s not like a slap on the wrist.
When I went to the center to interview Dr. Israel, I tried the aversion shock device to gauge its power. I put one electrode on my arm and shocked myself using a remote control. I had been told by the center’s employees that it feels like a bee sting or a pin prick. Let me tell you, it hurt far worse than that. Two seconds felt like two minutes. It was like a parade of pins stabbing me in the arm. I could see why students would alter their behavior after feeling that sensation.
Or why it could be called torture, and those students torture victims. Or why they would react like abused children react.
The comments are pretty nauseating. If the CNN blog is any indication, a lot of people are very much in favor of driving pins into the arms of children. This one was depressing as hell:
that is absurd how could you hurt us (im 13) like that, and besides in my opinon punishment doesnt work period. no matter what the surcumstance , electric shock treatment is one of the most inhumane and barbaric this a person could to to us
In comments to an earlier post, ballastexistenz said this:
But, the point that I just went on a bunch of rambles about, is that it’s possible, even unconsciously, to make it “worse” to be locked up and mistreated for being gender-variant, or pregnant, or a lesbian, than for being disabled or in some category that is currently labeled “mental illness”. And it’s also possible to be afraid to describe what happened to you or people you know in the name of some “real” disability, and thus reach for the examples that more people would agree are ludicrous. (I sometimes am afraid, myself, to discuss certain things that are done to us, as disabled people, because so often the expected but painful slap I get is something on the order of “But if it’s for that, it’s okay.”)
That kind of thinking is very much on display in the comments thread on the CNN blog. I get the sense–maybe it’s wishful thinking?–that the commenters don’t abuse their children and don’t like to see the children they know and love abused. They would probably be horrified to learn that their neighbors were hurting their children in this or similar ways. My children, our children, normal children, good children, successful children, white children don’t deserve that kind of treatment. Those children, sick children, crazy children, autistic children, ADHD children, black children, poor children, problem children, “bad kids,” “severe behavioral cases,” “at-risk children,” “troubled children,” obviously do. For those children, the ends justify the means. For those children, success is determined by how quiet they are. For those children, kindness is weakness. For those children, torture is good. A lot of the commenters draw the line this way:
As a last resort for problem students, it absolutely should be used. Traditional schooling just cannot work for some severe behavioral cases. I realize that it sounds horrible, but in all honesty, this has a proven case history behind it- shock collars for dogs. The human animal isn’t that far different.
Why -shouldn’t- it be used? I cannot think of a single reason. For these kids, this is a last resort. If they aren’t rehabilitated by whatever means necessary, society will be forced to deal with them later- when the problem is far too set it. Take care of the problem, however you can, while they are young. Fix the problem now, before these kids are out of control 20 year olds, or 30 year olds, committing real crimes.
One of them, creepier and creepier, draws it between children and adults:
this is a last resort method, and unlike adults, children will respond and learn from it.
Oh, and here’s the one willing to make it all explicit:
I suspect that those who have the opinion that it is somehow the fault of the parents that these children are the way they are, have never actually experienced someone with a violent mental illness. I don’t think anyone here is advocating that we do this to all children, heavens no, but rather for children who have gone through the entire system of psychotherapy and this is used as a last resort. I grew up with a brother who suffers from mental illness and have a family member with severe schizphrenia, trust me when I say that neither of these people are a result of what their parents did to them, these are mental illnesses. If mild shock thereapy works for these children and does not keep them in a drug induced stupor then I say apply it where necessary by a trained professional. If you’ve never experienced mental illness in your family and all the pain that it entails you have no possible idea what it is like and what steps you might take to help that person.