Congress is moving to ban devices used to administer electric shocks on people with developmental disabilities in an effort to modify their behavior, a practice that advocates have long decried as torturous.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 392 to 28 last week to approve the Food and Drug Amendments Act, a broad bill reauthorizing programs at the Food and Drug Administration. Tucked inside the legislation is a provision that would put an end to the use of what are known as electrical stimulation devices, which send shocks through electrodes attached to the skin in order to condition people not to engage in self-injurious or aggressive behaviors.

The devices are believed to be used at only one facility in the U.S. — the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass., which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities as well as those with behavioral and emotional problems.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Disability advocates have worked for years to bar the practice. And in 2020, the FDA finalized a ban on the devices after determining that they pose an “unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury.” The agency cited evidence of psychological and physical risks including burns, tissue damage, worsening underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the Rotenberg Center sued and last summer the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the FDA had overstepped its authority and overturned the regulation.

The legislation now heads to the Senate where advocates say they are hopeful that the provision banning electrical stimulation devices will be included.

“Contingent electric shock for the purposes of behavior modification is inhumane and ineffective and has been condemned by the United Nations as torture,” said Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “We hope the Senate will act swiftly — folks subjected to these shocks have been waiting for far too long.”

Supporters of the Rotenberg Center, however, are not backing down on what they say is a last resort for individuals with severe behaviors who have not responded to other treatments.

“The parents and guardians of clients of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) will continue to fight to preserve the life-saving electrical stimulation device (ESD) treatment for our loved ones, for whom all other treatment options have been tried and failed,” the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center Parents Association said in a statement to Disability Scoop. “Were the proposed legislation to be enacted, it would destroy the significant gains that have been achieved due to this treatment and inevitably result in self-mutilation and the reemergence of other severe behaviors that will lead to irreparable harm, permanent disfiguration, or even the death of our children.”