A panel discussed the history of institutional abuse against the disabled as part of the fifth installment of Georgetown’s Series on Disability Justice in the Edmund A. Walsh Building on Tuesday evening.
The panelists included Deepa Goraya, a lawyer with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Jennifer Msumba, a survivor of institutional abuse and a disability rights advocate and Shain Neumeier, a lawyer with Disability Rights New York. All three of the speakers were disabled. About 40 people attended the event.
The event was organized by Lydia Brown (COL ’15), who herself is autistic and a strong advocate for disability rights, running the website Autistic Hoya. It was a part of Disability Cultural Month.
“The impetus behind the entire lecture series is to promote greater dialogue behind different disability issues in a concrete way and in the context of diversity and social justice,” Brown said.
Goraya was the first on the panel to speak. She talked about the history of institutionalization in the United States and the two major court cases that have informed U.S. disability law: Buck v. Bell and Skinner v. Oklahoma. Both Supreme Court cases offered dissenting opinions on compulsory sterilization.
Goraya said that in today’s world, there must to be an emphasis on moving away from institutions and toward efforts to integrate the disabled back into communities in meaningful ways.
“We need to focus on thinking about de-institutionalizing people with disabilities in all aspects of life, whether it’s education, whether it’s discipline, whether it’s employment. Institutionalization is just not equal and it’s not effective,” she said.
Msumba offered a personal look at some of the horrifying conditions that exist in institutions. Since high school Msumba has been in and out of institutions, including time at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, an institution notorious for using electric shocks to reinforce behavior.
Msumba focused on the situations she faced at JRC, including abusive use of restraints and electric shocks, which she equated to torture.
“I had to earn [taking] a shower. They would touch me all over whether I said they could or not,” Msumba said. “And if I screamed, I got shocked, and they would go back to touching me some more. If I yelled or cried, I would get shocked, all while a camera in the corner of the bathroom was watching.”
Msumba said the longest amount of time she spent in restraints was after she tried to run into the road and commit suicide by being hit by a car. For two months after the incident everything she did from eating to using the bathroom had to be done while strapped to restraints.
“There is so much abuse of power,” Msumba said. “I witnessed it, and I experienced it. The staff would often threaten the non-verbal clients asking, ‘Do you want it?’”
Neumeier discussed the history of disability treatments in the United States and how places like the JRC came into existence. She also spoke about specific treatments such as electric shock and why it is allowed to continue to this day.
“In the early ’90s, they did add electric shock in order to avoid the staff putting their hands on students,” Neumeier said. “It was considered a less dangerous method of control. And most of this … they have been able to continue.”
The floor was then opened up to questions from the audience. Many audience members asked about how to address people who think institutional abuse is isolated to a few incidents, especially in terms of electric shock.
“Yeah, it’s only happening at JRC but these people are also human,” Goraya said. “It’s not okay to torture a human being and restrict their freedom. … You’re basically condoning torture.”
Brown organized the event alone, alongside a few sponsors, because she said that the university simply lacks the resources to put together Disability Cultural Month lectures.
“We don’t have infrastructure at Georgetown to have such programing,” Brown said. “For the past two years I have been advocating for the creation of a disability cultural center … that would fill the space for that need. As we have other diversity centers that purport to represent the need of and create safer spaces for particular communities, we don’t have such a space for disabled folks.”