Opinion Columns & Blogs

March 1, 2013

David Rundle: Wrong to punish disabled with electric shock

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Normally, I write about disability rights and related issues affecting Wichita, the state or the entire nation. I shy away from writing about issues specific to other states.

Yet there are things that are so wrong it matters not if they occur in only one state. They have to be exposed and condemned by those who love justice, compassion and fellow humans.

More than 40 years ago, psychologist Matthew Israel founded the Behavior Research Institute in California for children and teens with severe mental and emotional problems. Israel is a disciple of B.F. Skinner. Unlike many psychologists and psychiatrists, Skinner was less interested in the causes of behavior than in modifying it. Working with animals, Skinner changed their actions through rewards and punishments.

If a rat did something Skinner wanted, it would get food. If it did something unwanted, it might receive a small shock. Through these means, Skinner modified the rat’s behavior.

Many professionals seek to modify human behavior using Skinner’s methods, relying mainly on rewarding good behavior. If bad behavior is being punished, most experts take away goods and privileges.

Israel’s approach is radically different. Since Israel founded the institute, it has used physical restraints and pain to achieve desired changes in behavior. Early on, these punishments included slaps, pinches and severe restraints.

When one adolescent died after being held face down and suffocating, Israel lost his license in California. He moved the institute several times before ending up in Canton, Mass., where he renamed it the Judge Rotenberg Center after a state judge still on the bench.

But changes did not stop with the facility’s location and name. Israel had by now added electric shock to the punishments. Shock therapy is no longer used by respected professionals in America. But Israel not only used it, he made it very easy to do so.

Patients at the center wear special backpacks with devices that administer shocks when staff members activate them by remote control. These shocks are not small; they can cause significant pain. Also, shocks are not rare. They have been used if a kid talks too much, doesn’t obey orders or requests to use the restroom too often.

One girl with autism and no verbal skills received shocks because she was rocking and moaning. It turned out she had a toothache.

In 2002 Andre McCollins, then in his teens, refused to take off his coat. Tape shows him being pushed to the ground and receiving the first of more than 30 shocks he would receive over a day and a half. He was even shocked for tensing up, a natural reaction given his circumstance.

A 2010 report by Mental Disability Rights International called what the center does torture. Jamie Opat, director of communications at Starkey, a Wichita organization that promotes the independence of people with intellectual disabilities, called the DRI report disheartening and said the center’s method stigmatized all those who work with the disabled.

Israel stepped down as executive director of the center in 2011 under an agreement with the state to avoid prosecution for the destruction of tapes showing two students being shocked after making a prank phone call, the Boston Globe reported. On Feb. 14, Massachusetts filed court papers to revoke a 1987 agreement permitting the center’s methods.

It is past time. For the sake of humanity, the center must be closed.

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