The purpose of an electrical stimulation device (ESD) is to deliver an electric shock to the person wearing it so as to control his or her behavior.
Basically, it works on the same principle as a shock collar for dogs. If your dog barks too much you don’t want your dog peeing in the house, shock the hell out of it until it stops. [Note: Don’t actually do this. More on this later.]
I can’t believe whether or not it’s okay to shock disabled people is even up for debate.
The difference is that the ESD, when used on humans, is more like a backpack than a collar. And the only humans on which it is used are disabled people, primarily those on the autism spectrum. If you don’t want them behaving like people with autism sometimes do, you shock the hell out of them until they stop.
I’m not making this up. Believe it or not, in the twenty-first century, such devices are actually still in use. And the place where they are used is the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts.
The JRC calls itself a day and residential school that “has provided very effective education and treatment to both emotionally disturbed students with conduct, behavior, emotional, and/or psychiatric problems, as well as those with intellectual disabilities or on the autism spectrum.”
Many JRC residents wear ESD backpacks, and staff members hold remote controls to deliver shocks to them when they act up.
Disability rights activists have vigorously protested against the center’s use of ESDs for years. Some former residents and their families have told horror stories. Multiple videos have surfaced of residents screaming in agony after being shocked.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could put an end to all of this by banning the devices. In 2016, the agency published in the Federal Register a proposal to do just that. But nothing happened until late in 2018, when the FDA issued a statement that it would indeed ban them in 2019 because “these devices present substantial and unreasonable risks of illness or injury . . . .”
The JRC administration has vowed to challenge the FDA in court. The center and some families passionately defend the use of these devices as a life-saving technique of last resort that stops some residents from engaging in self-injurious behavior, like banging their heads against the wall and gouging their eyes.
But JRC is the only place that uses the device, so obviously there are other and presumably better ways to keep people from hurting themselves.
Anyway, here we are, almost in the spring of 2020 and the FDA still hasn’t finalized the ban. What gives?
FDA spokesperson Jim McKinney told me the FDA is still responding to the more than 1,500 comments submitted in response to the 2016 proposal, and nothing will move forward until that process is complete.
When I asked how much longer that might take, McKinney said, “FDA has been working to issue the final rule as closely as possible to the plan announced in the fall of 2019.” He added that “Issuing this final rule remains a priority for the FDA.”
On February 10, eight Democrat U.S. Senators turned up the heat when they sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn asking him to “end a barbaric—and disproven—practice” by immediately issuing the ban. The Senators are Patty Murray of Washington, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Doug Jones of Alabama, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Tina Smith of Minnesota.
I can’t believe whether or not it’s okay to shock disabled people is even up for debate. I used to have a dog that peed in the house. Some people said I should put a shock collar on her, but I said no way. I’d never treat a dog like that. It’s a good thing she didn’t have to rely on the FDA to protect her.