Disability rights advocates speak to students about institutional abuse and torture in America

On Tuesday night, two disability rights attorneys and an institutional abuse survivor participated in a panel discussion entitled “Human Rights Aren’t For Us: Disability & Legalized Abuse,” the third in Lydia Brown‘s (COL ’15) Lecture & Performance Series on Disability Justice that is being held and sponsored by various University and external organizations throughout the academic year.

Deepa Goraya, an attorney at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs for the Disability Rights Project, provided a detailed overview on how, since the colonial era, people with disabilities were long confined to institutions and deprived of citizenship.

Goraya cited several landmark court cases beginning in the 1970s that have successfully framed institutionalization as a civil rights issue. Since then, people with disabilities have begun to move into community-based settings to pursue employment and integrate themselves into society.

“We need to focus on thinking of de-institutionalizing people with disabilities in all aspects of life,” Goraya said. “They are considered inferior. They internalize that mindset in institutions … People with disabilities belong in the community like all of us and deserve the chance to live up to their full potential.”

Shain Neumeier, an attorney at Disability Rights New York, linked the origins of modern-day institutions that purported to treat people with disabilities to New Age and pseudo-scientific ideologies in the 1950s. Scholars and government officials conducted research on solitary confinement, coercive persuasion, and deprivation techniques that Cold War-era Communist regimes practiced.

Jennifer Msumba, an adult with autism who has been in a residential school or hospital since the age of 15, shared her intensely personal and traumatic experiences in the multiple residential schools and programs she was part of.

By the tenth grade, Msumba’s parents made the decision to send her to a hospital.

“When I got there, the double doors closed behind me. Slammed shut and locked. I freaked out. I was pulling on the doors,” Msumba said. “A staff just casually came over to me and he said, ‘Keep it up, you’re not going to like what happens next.'”

She was drugged and confined in a quiet room for 55 minutes of every hour she spent in the hospital. Once, while on four-point restraints, she almost suffocated to death at the hands of a male nurse who stuffed a pillow to her face and swore at her to shut up. Her parents filed reports on the incident, but the hospital failed to press criminal charges on the nurse.

In March, 2002, she was admitted to the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, MA, where she would find an unprecedented amount of suffering in her next seven years of life.

The school is known to use aversives, which aim to change behavior through negative stimuli. In her first two months, she was made to sit from morning until night on a hard plastic board on the floor.

“I was given no meaningful work,” Msumba said. “If I attempted or even laid down because my back would hurt so bad, I would get restrained … They didn’t even try with me, never gave me a chance.”

Afterwards, the school placed all over her body five shock devices called graduated electronic decelerators, manufactured at the JRC to change behavior. “They put their hands down my pant legs … The devices are heavy, they’re long, they strap up to your arms, legs, and one across my stomach … the wires feed into a backpack that they make you put on,” she said of the shock devices.

A school employee locked the backpack to her back. “And then she patted it, like she was finishing a masterpiece,” Msumba said. “I felt like a piece of property at that point, just wired for control.”

Msumba said that staff often threatened to shock her, not because of behavioral problems, but because the staff had personal problems with her.

To get cleaned, staff placed Msumba into four-point restraints, undressed her, and sponged her. “They would touch me all over, whether I said they could or not, and if I screamed, I got shocked, and they would go back to touch me,” she said. “All while a camera at the corner of the bathroom was watching.”

Msumba believes that aversives, especially those done without consent, are ineffective and inhuman ways to treat people like her. “I was so low in society, it was okay for me to be tortured without appeal,” she said. “I felt I was no longer American. The country I was raised to believe in denounced torture of a citizen. I mattered so little that this didn’t even apply to me.”

Photo: Saman Asdjodi/Georgetown Voice

One Comment on “Disability rights advocates speak to students about institutional abuse and torture in America

  1. The University should be commended for giving people with disabilities and people who have been subjected to these abuses an opportunity to speak for themselves and have their experiences heard. These are abuses that would not be tolerated if used against any other disenfranchised group. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has determined the techniques used at the Judge Rotenberg Center to be torture that would not be legal if used even against convicted terrorists. When will the United States enact policy to protect vulnerable citizens? This panel discussion is an important step in continuing to make the public aware of these critical issues. Congratulations to each of the speakers for your wisdom, insight and bravery in assuring your voices are heard and to the planners of this event for offering this important forum.

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