I first became aware of the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) after reading a 2007 article in Mother Jones. I was horrified; and that was before both my children received an autism diagnosis. In April of this year I was astonished to hear that, not only was the JRC still open, it was STILL shocking children. Andre McCollins’ family was suing the JRC and as part of the lawsuit, video of him refusing to remove his jacket and as a result being shocked 31 times, was made public. You can see part of the footage below but please be warned, it is disturbing.
For more information and for a comprehensive list of “stuff you can do” to support efforts to end the use of shocking, please read this great blog post by Autistic Hoya.
The universal reaction to this video from all the special needs parents I know has been one of horror – we find ourselves imagining ‘what if that was my child?’ But if so many of us are appalled by this, how is it that society lets it continue? And why do parents agree to such ‘treatment plans’? I’ve been mulling this over for some time now. One great post that seeks to answer these questions came from Mama Be Good who sees at work an accumulation of incremental steps with respect to attitudes towards autism. I think she’s definitely onto something but I am also of the view that the shockings at the JRC are symptomatic of a much bigger issue. This extends far beyond both the autism community and the wider special needs network of parents, schools and therapists. It’s a societal problem, created by all of us who overlook or even support the abuse of human rights, particularly when we can justify it as furthering a higher goal or natural justice.
It’s our ability to turn a blind eye to torture when larger factors are at play that enables, for example, Sean Penn to fraternize with Hugo Chavez. The human rights situation in Venezuela has worsened considerably under Chavez but its acceptable to overlook or deny that because Chavez stands up to the U.S. and Big Oil. Another example is the large number of Americans who still believe that the use of waterboarding against suspected terrorists was warranted. This, despite the fact that the “interrogation technique” was used by the Gestapo and in Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia – not exactly great company to be keeping.
I was recently watching The Thin Blue Line, a documentary by Errol Morris that convincingly made the case that the wrong man had been convicted of the murder of police officer Robert Wood. Largely as a result of this documentary, Randall Adam’s conviction was eventually overturned. A line from the documentary struck me as especially powerful – Edith James, Randall’s lawyer, was explaining that in her view, the reason Randall was charged was because the only other possible defendent was a sixteen year-old boy and the jury would be loathe to convict a minor of a capital crime. The other lawyer defending Randall was Dennis White; here are Edith’s comments regarding an alleged conversation between White’s wife and the judge:
“And the judge was supposed to have said – that’s Metcalfe – Don Metcalfe was supposed to have said to Jeannette White…, “Well, what do you care? He’s only a drifter.” Source
“He’s only a drifter.” Replace drifter with: black man, homosexual, mental retard… do any of those options sound even remotely acceptable?
I have opposed the death penalty for as long as I can remember. If you don’t, that’s fine, please keep reading because this isn’t a post about the death penalty per se. I’m using capital punishment as an example of how easy it is for both individuals and society as a whole to dehumanize people. We justify the application of the death penalty because it happens to people we perceive as evil, but who are these evil people? Well, in the case of those of us who have kids with an intellectual disability, it’s possible that those people could be our children.
From 1976 until 2001, 749 people were executed in the United States. Of those 749, 44 people met the criteria required for a diagnosis of mental retardation. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of the intellectually disabled was unconstitutional, but given that IQ is typically used to assess intellectual disability, the assurance given by this decision is flimsy, especially when you consider that something as simple as the timing of an IQ test can profoundly impact its results. How comfortable are you with the idea that people are either executed or not, based on an IQ test? I hope my fellow parents consider, when next they find themselves fighting for services for their child, what if they were fighting against the state to save their child’s life? Even more worrying – what if the person didn’t commit the offense they are charged with? People with an intellectual disability are more likely to confess to crimes they haven’t committed and are less likely to be able to effectively participate in their own defense.
Let’s put this into an even wider context – how many of us haven’t had thoughts like these?
- The assassination of Osama Bin Laden? Well, he was responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 on September 11th, so why would I care that due process wasn’t followed?
- Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death by another inmate? He deserved it – he was a monster.
- Angel Diaz takes 34 minutes to die because his execution by lethal injection was botched – he was a convicted murderer; why would I care?
What about thoughts like these?
- Robert Latimer killing his daughter Tracy was a mercy killing.
- Yes, it was right to repeal in 1972 the law in the province of Alberta that forced the sterilization of the mentally disabled, but the truth is, special needs couples are simply not capable of raising children.
- Not all aversives are torture – putting lemon in someone’s mouth, spritzing their face with water or even restraining them – these things aren’t as bad as shocking them
- It’s true that special needs children are abused by teachers, bus drivers and aides, but then it’s also true that the people who serve the special needs community are overworked, mistreated and underpaid.
In order for the ends to justify the means we first have to view the people involved as less than whole; we have to dehumanize. (Hitler knew that of course which is why he portrayed Jews as vermin.)
- When disabled children are viewed as vegetables or as having no future then we see them as less than we are, and it then becomes easier to justify their death at the hands of a parent or caregiver, as either an act of mercy or as understandable.
- When someone is executed by the state, even if that execution is unlawful or painful, we feel it’s warranted because that individual was an evil monster (not a person), so both their killing and the manner of their death is justified.
- The JRC has been allowed to torture for years because those being shocked are aggressive and self-injurious (less than whole) and professionals have said that shocking was the only option to decrease their behaviour – so it is rationalized as “treatment” and our deference to authority buttresses that rationalization (helloooo Milgram!).
These are all very different situations but in my view they all occur on the same continuum. Until we refuse to see some people as ‘other’ or ‘less’ then we will dehumanize those people and actions we would see as abuse when applied to ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ folk then become acceptable. We need to accept and then cling to the concept, that every single human being has rights (and responsiblities), regardless of who they are, what they look like, what they have done, or whether or not we agree with them. If we don’t reject the concept that in some cases the ends justify the means, then places like the JRC will always be here and our children will always be at risk for abuse. Nothing will truly change until we accept that every human being is entitled to personhood, that with that personhood comes rights and that abuse of those rights is always unacceptable.
The next time you find yourself saying that “he deserved it” or hear others asking “why should we care?” then take some time to consider – what if it was your child? Would they deserve it? Would you want others to care?