“He’s only a…”

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?


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15 Comments on ““He’s only a…””

  1. solodialogue May 26, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    I could not agree with you more on every last statement. At the root of it all is dehumanizaton and desensitization to it. I had no idea this was going on but sadly, i am not surprised. Will be reading more to see if I have anything to offer in terms that could help. Thank you for this important post.

    • OMum22 May 26, 2012 at 11:04 am #

      Thank you Karen, so much. The senate in Massachusetts (where the JRC is currently located) just passed a measure to ban shocking in the state. We’re moving in the right direction but not there yet.

  2. Gingerheaddad May 26, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    We often talk about these kinds of issues. What if it was one of our kids rolls around in my head often. From eugenics programs in North America in the Twentieth Century, to the horrible stories of institutions like JRC to bureaucratic indifference, we must always ask what if it was my kid.

    • OMum22 May 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

      Agreed. Of course it’s much easier to do when it’s a child as opposed to an adult you have no sympathy with, but it’s just as necessary.

  3. Mama Be Good (@mamabegood) May 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Thank you, Deanne. It’s easier for someone to pass off abuse and murder when it’s far away. Much harder when we think of it in our own lives.

    • OMum22 May 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      Thanks Brenda! Exactly, we need to strive hard to narrow that emotional distance. Empathy for people we don’t know is tough to generate. If we don’t approve of what they’ve done, it’s even harder. If we don’t exercise those emotional muscles they atrophy and these terrible abuses happen.

  4. Beckie May 28, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    Comparing my aspergers child to Paul Bernardo is not appropriate and is in fact quite offensive. There are some people who choose to be monsters. My uncle is schizophrenic but he is certainly not a Charles Manson! Saying that society should view them all equally, with respect to rights is disgusting! The man who rapes a child destroys that child’s life forever and kills a part of that child eternally. They never fully recover and every aspect of their lives is shadowed by it for the rest of their life even with the best of therapies. There are some people, who once they commit horrible crimes against society, remove themselves from the protection of society. Those who are the most vulnerable in society require the most protection. I have one child who is ASD, two god sons who are ASD, a nephew who is developmentally disabled, an uncle who is schizophrenic, a step sister who struggles with manic depression and a half- sister who is bi-polar and I have worked with Special Needs Children and youth for 23 years! Your argument manipulates the common decency of caring people by contrasting our most vulnerable members of society to the perpetrators of the most horrific crimes. I usually enjoy your posts, but all I can say to the manipulation you perpetrated here is Shame on you!

    • OMum22 May 29, 2012 at 12:08 am #

      Beckie, Thanks for taking the time to comment. I would like to outline three things for you in response. First, the areas where we agree. Second, the areas we disagree on. Thirdly, why I think you’ve misread my post.

      – Areas of agreement: your son (and my two ASD sons) have nothing in common with Paul Bernardo. I also agree with you that the most vulnerable in society should be afforded the most protection.

      – “some people choose to be monsters” – I disagree. There are undoubtedly people who choose to do monstrous acts. Given that people have both responsiblities as well as rights, by choosing to commit these barbaric crimes, they forfeit their right to liberty. They are still people however, and nothing they have done gives the state the right to abuse them. “once they commit horrible crimes against society, remove themselves from the protection of society” – I profoundly disagree. What is the point in having a criminal justice system if you believe this to be the case? Your statement contradicts even Abrahamic notions of justice.

      Your mention of Paul Bernardo immediately clues me in to the fact that you have misread my post. Paul Bernardo has not been abused by the state; he will spend the rest of his natural life incarcerated and I am extremely glad about that. The idea that I’m arguing that murders and ASD children are the same is preposterous. The only thing they have in common is the same thing that Queen Elizabeth II and my sons have in common – we are all people; as such we all have rights and responsibilities.

      I’m saying that there is a continuum of ABUSE that is supported by large sections of society and that this abuse is underwritten by every single person who takes the view that some individuals are less than human. Some people find the abuse on one end of the continuum appalling because it hits close to home. Abuse on the other end of the continuum is either overlooked or supported however, because it happens to people with whom we have nothing in common, people we often despise (with good reason). By agreeing to the classification of criminals and terrorists as sub-human we give tacit permission to their abuse and torture. But when rights are eroded it becomes difficult to stop – if others see my children as less than human simply because they have a developmental disorder, how do I protect them from being abused?

      A tangential point I was making is that those with an intellectual, developmental or mental disability are most definitely over-represented in the criminal justice system. This is not because they are more likely to commit crime. Again, viewing certain groups as inhuman simply makes miscarriages of justice more likely.

      Lastly, manipulative? I could accept controversial or even inflammatory but manipulative? Only in the sense that I’m asking people to think. If that’s manipulative then sure, I have no problem with that.

  5. Kathryn Mikrons May 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm #


    I feel your post today was a well thought out persuasive argument for the equality of human rights. As a mother of a child with autism, I was not offended but grateful for you ringing the matter to light in a thought provoking manner. Thank you for helping to inform the masses of abuse that every Special Needs child’s parent fear to happen to their child. I can’t be with my son 24 hours a day / 7 days a week, with school, therapies, and social activities. I must trust that he is NOT being abused or treated with indifference. Thank you thank you thnk you for a great blog!

    • Kathryn Mikronis May 28, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

      Not ringing but bringing. Oops

      • OMum22 May 28, 2012 at 5:44 pm #


    • OMum22 May 28, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

      Thank you Kathryn, I’m glad you found it thought-provoking. I will reply to Beckie’s comments as I think she raises some interesting questions.

  6. VW May 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    I found this blog wonderful, today. Thank you

    • OMum22 May 28, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

      I’m so glad you did – thank you V.

  7. anautismdad June 14, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    Very well said. We live in a world where the different are marginalised and any action to reduce this is welcome. The benchmark has to be yourself. If it happened to you, to your brother, your daughter, would it be acceptable. If the answer is no, then this type of barbarism has to be opposed.

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