Disability simulations are not the only kind that don’t work.


“I can understand how you feel,” said the staff person as she was busy strapping me to a bed, and I was busy struggling. “During our trainings, we had to get strapped down for five minutes. It was really scary.” I think this was intended to calm me down. Needless to say it didn’t.

Disability simulations have long been viewed by the disability community as inaccurate and damaging, promoting horrible views of disability that don’t match actually being disabled.  I would argue that a reverse effect is true with disability-torture simulations:  People get an idea that it’s much better than it really is.  The only way someone could understand how that would feel, would be this:

Without any warning, to have someone break into their home and find them (or find them taking a walk, or pull over their car, or get them at work, etc), grab them, subdue any struggling, and strap them to a board, where they are then put into a van. The van drives to a place with many, many locks on the doors. They are “admitted” and not given a chance to speak for themselves, and when they do speak, whatever they say is treated as nonsense or meaningless. They are told what to do at all hours of the day, their every movement, even potentially eye movement, is pathologized, and they are made to witness other bewildered people like them being tortured, especially if the other people fight back or stop responding to their environment the way their captors want them to. Punish all possible responses to the environment, and punish responses to punishment.

Either at random during the course of the day, or as soon as they do something that appears “non-compliant,” have ten people jump on top of them, pin them to the ground, and then carry them into a little room with straps all over the bed, and then strap them down. Tell them they will not get out of the little room until they finish struggling and crying out. Tell them they may never get out of the place at all until they show signs of believing that who they are is sick and that in order to get well they must become or at least strongly emulate something they will never be, and above all stop reacting to confinement as confinement. If they begin fighting for breath, tell them that if they can struggle that much, they can breathe just fine. Tell them they’ll be out in certain periods of time, and then extend those periods arbitrarily. Tell them “You’ll be out in ten minutes,” and then wait four hours. If they ask why it’s taken four hours, tell them “Oh, you’re not quiet, that’ll be another ten minutes.” Repeat for days. Contradict everything they see as reality, get them convinced that nothing they perceive is real is actually real. Shame them for their ordinary acts of defiance in these circumstances, tell them that it must just be for attention because obviously resisting is pointless.

That is a simulation that would truly mimic the effects of institutionalization, and give the entire context in which restraint is experienced. Simply strapping someone to a bed in a controlled exercise entirely among staff is not the same and will never be the same. Of course, the simulation I describe above would be considered unethical. Which makes me really wonder why it becomes “ethical” when it’s done to people who aren’t staff.

On Kevin Leitch’s blog, a staff person at the Judge Rotenberg Center is talking about how they’ve tried the skin shock device on themselves. This apparently is a point in favor of the ethics of using it.

However, that’s not a real simulation either. Here’s the real simulation:

Go through the entire above scenario, preferably several times. If the person survives, transfer them to a new location. In that location, have someone strap a device to their bodies, above any protests of theirs if necessary. Any time they do some particular action, zap them with said device. If they don’t get it, zap them harder. Periodically, tie them down and tell them they’ll be zapped several times within the next hour, but they won’t know when. Let them know that they’ll be there, and be getting zapped, at least until they stop whatever the undesired behaviors are. Be sure to be fairly arbitrary, at times, about which behaviors are prohibited and zap-worthy. Do not permit them to take the device off. For extra bonus points, talk to them in a foreign language that they have no knowledge of any languages even related to it.

Until someone goes through that simulation, especially without even being told that it’s only a simulation, I’m not going to trust a word they say about knowing what it’s like to receive strong aversives. It’s like saying that you understand the sleep deprivation involved in formal torture situations because you’ve been sleep-deprived while studying for tests. Just… no. Not even close.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

4 responses »

  1. I remember being at the end of my rope trying to figure out why my son was banging his head. So I tried it. While nursing my swollen hairline I realized I was missing the point – it’s the frustration or feelings leading up to the banging that’s the important part. So that’s the part that I’ve tried to understand and assist him in expressing / working through. I don’t know what it’s like to be so frustrated or feel something so intensely that the only thing I feel that I could do is headbang, but I think that through the learning and growing process both he and I have come to some common ground and the head banging is pretty much nonexistent these days.

    What I can’t imagine is banging his head as a punishment and justifying it by saying that I’ve banged my own head. It’s really twisted.

  2. I think it’s possible to associate our own behaviours with those that others exhibit. I’ve never banged my head on purpose (done it enough by accident to know I don’t like it), but I’ve pulled my own hair and bitten the palm of my hand – both in response to stress/anxiety, when there was literally nothing I could do otherwise to release the pressure inside.

    But, yeah… the statement in the opening paragraph of this post (“I can understand how you feel,” said the staff person as she was busy strapping me to a bed, and I was busy struggling. “During our trainings, we had to get strapped down for five minutes. It was really scary.”) seems to me to be akin to telling a rape victim, “I can understand how you feel. I’ve had to (name random distasteful activity). It wasn’t much fun.” Or, even better, stating that your own first time hurt, so you understand how she feels. You don’t. You can’t. (I don’t, by the way.)

  3. You’re right, relating to others on the basis of actual shared experiences is totally different to trying something way outside the context of what someone else is experiencing, and then forcing that experience on someone saying that it’s okay because you’ve tried it, or at least that you sympathize because you’ve tried it.

    I’ve had much less trouble with staff who had experienced restraints, but then, I’ve rarely had any staff who’d experienced them try to use them on me. They generally had a clue about certain power relationships involved. And even if they had used them on me, they would not have even thought to try “Oh I know how you feel, so I’m doing it to you.” (Unless we were dealing with Stockholm Syndrome, which does happen, and isn’t pretty, and is often exploited by existing staff.)

    And with regard to what that staff person was doing, in your analogy it would’ve been the equivalent of saying “I know what it’s like to be raped. Because I have had sex.” While raping someone.

    Or the equivalent of staff saying, “I know what being hit is like, because I’ve had someone hit me in a controlled martial arts class setting,” while hitting someone.

  4. I know I can’t ever entirely (or at all) “get inside” Charlie’s head, when he’s headbanging or running up and down the room in a very hyper fashion. And I think it is important to know that there is a distance between us, that we are very different, but also to keep working towards some connection.

    And then to acknowledge our differences again.

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