For over three decades, the Judge Rotenberg Center has subjected autistic and other disabled people to painful electric shock torture as a form of behavior modification to punish and control those confined there. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally announced that a ban on the use of those electric shocks to take effect in thirty days.
AWN joins many other autistic and disabled-led organizations, along with our allies, in celebrating this long-overdue announcement, which comes nearly six years after the FDA first held a hearing considering whether or not it should ban the shocks, and after the United Nations twice condemned the U.S. over the JRC’s tactics of torture, which have killed at least six people confined there. The ban is an enormous win for disability rights advocates everywhere, and would not have been possible without the tireless advocacy of many on the front lines – including work to stop the JRC’s abuses before it had even begun using the shocks.
We honor in particular the persistence of survivors of the JRC’s abuses, both known and unknown, who have advocated publicly and privately to stop the shocks and shut down the institution. Without their work over the last half-century since JRC originally opened, we would not be where we are today. We are grateful for the work of those who have survived JRC’s abuses, the vast majority of whom are Black and Latinx disabled people erased by ableism and racism, and we mourn that untold thousands of our community members have been forced to suffer there before our government finally took action to stop part of the torture. People with intellectual, developmental, and psychosocial disabilities have always been speaking up for ourselves; for once, those in power decided to listen and to act.
We also applaud the many self-advocates, policy advocates, attorneys, clinicians, teachers, researchers, parent and family advocates, scholars, elected officials, and other concerned community members who have supported survivors and their families in advocating for an end to the shocks and to the JRC itself. Our community offers its gratitude for those trailblazers and leaders across many organizations, with particular respect for those who are no longer with us today and unable to share in this victory with us.
Yet AWN understands we still have much work to do. The FDA’s ban allows JRC to continue using the shocks for up to six months on people currently subjected to them. JRC has a long history of fighting all attempts at government regulation of their abuses, and no doubt will attempt to stall or reverse the ban. The people who are currently confined at JRC will largely remain there even if the ban comes into full effect, and will suffer other abuses in the future just as they have in the past until we close JRC. And thousands upon thousands of disabled people remain in other institutions across the U.S. and outside it, subjected to enforced isolation and mechanisms of control that breed physical, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse of all kinds.
We must fight to ensure the ban goes forward in full force and effect, and as quickly as possible. We must continue to fight to shut down JRC, along with all other institutions where disabled people are confined and subject to every possible form of abuse without the same news coverage as the shocks used at JRC. We must keep fighting to protect those whom the JRC can keep shocking for another six months, even with the ban in place. We must fight for reparations to the survivors of JRC’s abuses, and we must fight to hold those who have been complicit in their abuse accountable. We must keep fighting to end all forms of abuse and torture of disabled people done in the name of treatment, therapy, or help “for our own good.” No one ever deserves to be abused in any way, and we can and will fight for a world where abuse of any kind no longer exists.
Coming less than a week after the annual Disability Day of Mourning vigils commemorating the lives of disabled people murdered by family members and caregivers, this ban carries great symbolic significance for the disabled community. While too many of our kin continue to face the deadly consequences of ableism, we have now glimpsed a world in which electric shocking disabled people into submission may become merely an unthinkable and unimaginable historic artifact. It is our grave moral responsibility to carry the fight forward to a future where each of us can live free, self-determined lives, with supports that respect our dignity and humanity, in communities of our own choosing.
The Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network is a support and advocacy organization focused on the unique needs of autistic women, girls, nonbinary people, and all other autistic people of marginalized genders.