Monday, August 1, 2011

Proposed Amendments to Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services Regulations May Limit/End Use of Aversives on Students with Disabilities

The Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services is considering amending their regulations and recently sought public feedback for the changes, which were proposed by Senator Brian A. Joyce and Representative Tom Sannicandro. This is another attempt to bring attention and oversight to the the use of court-ordered aversives and end the possibility of use on students not currently subjected to it in the Commonwealth. This practice was deemed to meet the legal definition of torture by the United Nations Torture Czar. The hearing notice can be viewed here.

The following comments were submitted by facsimile.

July 26, 2011

Commissioner Elin M. Howe
Executive Office of Health and Human Services
Office of the General Counsel
Department of Developmental Services
500 Harrison Avenue
Boston, MA 02118

Commissioner Howe:

Please accept this communication in support of proposed amendments to the Department of Developmental Services regulations under the authority of M.G.L. c. 19B, §§ 1 and 14 “to establish the highest practicable professional standards for use of behavior modification procedures for persons with intellectual disability in public or private facilities for the care and treatment of such persons.”

The use of aversives, and in particular, the lack of Departmental oversight for their use in the Commonwealth, is a stain on the progressive record of education law and pedagogy we have otherwise boasted. As you are aware, Massachusetts is the only state in the Nation to continue to allow the use of this methodology, at a single school, which alone speaks volumes about the practice itself.

For years, the single school which has been given authority to use such practices has justified the methods as a means of discipline for students with severe disabilities - despite sharp criticism from colleagues in the field - by contending that it is the last resort for the many residents of the school, who they contend have no remaining options, claiming that the use of aversive therapy is the only answer for this population of students.

It is difficult to understand how any school, individual or agency can continue to justify this practice by the population alone, especially given that every other state in the nation, who clearly are also home to students with similar challenges, do not approve - but rather, renounce - the use of aversives as a teaching or disciplinary measure. The field of Special Education has shifted to the use of Positive Behavioral Support (PBS) and aversive methods are no longer considered ethical or humane. In fact, Massachusetts has stricter regulations enforcing the rights of both incarcerated individuals and animals than students with disabilities.

The use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure on typically developing children in our state would be met with absolute outrage – this should be no different. The question of whether the practice is effective has been the basis of many arguments to justify its continued use. The effectiveness of the practice is not the issue at hand. We must instead consider whether the practice is humane and ethical, and the extent to which we wish to protect our most vulnerable citizens who rely on our continued advocacy and protection.

I strongly urge the Department, the Legislature and the Commonwealth to approve these amendments, and I further urge consideration toward absolute abolishment of this practice in the state.