THE XX FILES: Developmentally disabled kids have rights, too

Raquel Ronzone

School fights have officially taken on a new meaning.

They have moved from playground disputes among students to courtroom debates involving parents, lawyers, school administrators and the students who are inevitably left as victims.

Prompting the concern and outrage are the practices of aversive shock therapy and seclusion, used as attempts to control and instill desired behavior in students, some of whom are developmentally disabled.

Put aside strong personal feelings about these disciplinary measures for just a second, and the indisputable facts become clear: aversive shock therapy delivers a two-second electric shock to the skin through a device known as a gradual electronic decelerator.

Some individuals wear as many as five electrodes at a time on their arms and legs, receiving shocks whenever authorities believe it necessary.

The United States Justice Department is currently reviewing whether the use of aversive shock therapy by Massachusetts’ Judge Rotenberg Educational Center violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, a move that could mark a major shift in policy.

Seclusion rooms are closet-sized enclosures, some measuring only 4 feet by 3.5 feet across With their usual fixtures of concrete floors and windowless, padded walls, they have earned comparisons to solitary confinement cells.

Although some states — like Michigan, which permits confinement for 15 minutes or less — have strict specifications for the use of these rooms, individuals have reported longer periods of confinement, up to six hours in the case of Caleb Londoff.

The words “emotional damage” barely scratch the surface of what seclusion can do. Isolation for extended periods of time can obviously cause distress, especially in young students who are developmentally disabled and do not completely understand what is happening to them.

The repercussions were more severe for Jonathan King, who attended a public school for students with behavioral problems. 

Once in a seclusion room, he hung himself.

He was 13.

The discussion cannot end at that expected refrain of whether aversive shock therapy and seclusion are wrong or why they are wrong, for that matter. Rather than benefitting students, these alleged forms of discipline are harming them, even driving one to commit suicide. 

That’s the only reason we need to recognize that these practices are wrong and oppose them.

We can’t, either, end remarking how terrible this is and leaving the issue in the hands of others because — as we tell ourselves — we have no control over what these schools do.

Our very approach and attitude toward this issue has to change in order for these practices to change.

We have to question our awareness of developmental disabilities.

We can attend all of the fundraisers we want. We can pride ourselves on donating a dollar or two to special needs charities at the grocery store register, on adorning our cars with puzzle piece stickers for autism awareness and helping out with local Special Olympics events.

Yet, for all of our showy displays of support, we have lost the scope of the campaign, forgotten the day-to-day struggle for disabled rights and overlooked one of the most basic human rights — education.

We forget the reality that living with and caring for a developmentally disabled person is a life-long task filled with daily battles over things that we so often take for granted — like a meaningful education and a safe, comfortable environment to work for that education.

We belittle people who are developmentally disabled and the challenges they face by using the word “retarded” outside of its proper dictionary definition. Contrary to what you hear, or what you say, it does not mean dumb. 

By creating a connotation that makes “retarded” synonymous with “stupidity,” we are, with the utterance of a sentence, denying the personhood, self-awareness and feelings of individuals with developmental disabilities.

Is it not this denial that paved the way for injustices like aversive shock therapy and seclusion to occur in the first place? We don’t admit that shocking inflicts just as much pain on a person who has a developmental disability as it does on a person who does not. We confess that we get claustrophobic in elevators, but we don’t think for a second about the emotional trauma suffered by students forced into seclusion for prolonged periods of time.

The responsibility of banning aversive shock therapy and seclusion is not on your shoulders.

However, you can begin to think and act differently, more considerately, in the hope that a more respectful, life-affirming attitude toward developmental disabilities and the people who have them would prevent the implementation of these two practices, and others like them, in the future.


Raquel Ronzone is a junior communication major from Philadelphia.  She can be reached at [email protected].