Many in the autism community have already heard of the horrifying story of the young autistic boy being confined in a bag (the mother calls it a gym bag in this video). Lydia Brown, of Autistic Hoya, immediately acted, setting up a petition on Change.org that has nearly 150,000 signatures, a facebook page, and speaking to the media about this case. We send our children to school in the hopes that they will be well-cared for, respected, and not abused, but too many of our children are abused, are bullied, are mistreated.
And yet, in covering previous restraint issues like a Florida school using a full-body restraint system on children, what's amazing are the people, including parents, who support the use of such things. You would think outrage over this would be universal (at the very least from the parental perspective), but the reality is that such abuse occurs because there are parents and professionals (and people in general) who wholeheartedly approve the use of restraints. The Judge Rotenberg Center continues to exist because parents went to bat before the state legislature praising the use of shocks on their children. Parents even use the shock systems when they take their children home for visits.
How could anyone do this? Part of it is the dehumanization of individuals with disabilities--the tendency to place anyone different in our outgroup. It is the removal of empathy. No one feeling empathy towards an individual could place a nine-year-old boy in a bag and tie it up and sit calmly by the bag. No one feeling empathy could place a child in a full-body restraint face-down and think that act is acceptable. Yet, it happens all too often.
Restraints, chemical and otherwise, are unlikely to go away any time soon. They are prevalent in institutions and prisons and are (supposed to be) used against individuals who are violent and out of control (when no other method will work). Regulations and oversight exist to try to avoid abuse of restraints, but that oversight is inadequate, and the people who are employed to care for these populations are often poorly trained, poorly paid, overworked and understaffed. The environments are ripe for abuse to occur. Add in dehumanization, lack of empathy, and the frustrations that come from being poorly trained, paid, and overworked, and it's inevitable.
The use of restraints are easier and faster than teaching an individual an appropriate way to respond to a person who is behaving disruptively or dangerously. In a culture in which spanking and smacking kids is still seen as an appropriate response, why is anyone surprised that restraint and abuse occur? After all, when nearly 1800 children in 2009 are believed to have been killed due to maltreatment and neglect in the US, and CPS reports in 2009 show nearly 700,000 unique children with substantiated abuse or neglect, why are we surprised when a teacher or a caregiver engages in abusive behavior? What should be really scary is that this is the tip of the iceberg--think how many cases of abuse and neglect are never reported.
In order to eliminate the abuse and mistreatment of our most vulnerable populations, we as a society must first change how we view violence in general and the use of physical force as a disciplinary tool. It is an uphill battle, especially given how the internet has allowed us to be anonymous and spew hatred without consequence. However, we are not without hope. Nearly 150,000 people cared enough to sign the petition at Change.org. Now, we need to act. As Lydia points out, ordinary people can make a difference. Stand up and speak out. Contact your legislatures and demand that legislation be passed calling for the equal rights of the disabled and disadvantaged to a safe environment where physical restraints are not allowed and that educators or caregivers who abuse and detain or restrain individuals are legally liable for their actions. If the act would be considered assault against a non-disabled individual, then it is for a disabled, as well, and all the more heinous an act because of the vulnerability of the individual.
It may be an uphill battle, but it is not a losing battle.