Despite pressure from disability advocates, federal lawmakers are backing off of a proposal to ban devices used to administer electric shocks on people with developmental disabilities.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in June to end 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.

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The House approved the ban as part of a broad bill reauthorizing programs at the Food and Drug Administration. But, a deal reached this week to allow the legislation to move forward in the Senate stripped the provision pertaining to the electric shock devices along with several other items.

“We are heartbroken and furious,” said Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “The decision to go with a clean version of the bill was purely for political convenience.”

Bascom’s group and others have fought for years to stop the use of electric shock devices on people with developmental disabilities. In 2020, the FDA finalized a ban saying that the devices pose an “unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury.” At the time, the agency cited evidence of psychological and physical risks including burns, tissue damage, worsening underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, the FDA regulation was later overturned when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit determined that the agency had overstepped its authority. As a result, disability advocates say that action from Congress is needed.

“The people with IDD being electrocuted at the JRC for getting out of their chairs don’t have the luxury of indulging Senate process,” Bascom said. “Congress must act: every day without this ban is a failure of leadership.”

Bethany Lilly at The Arc said she and other advocates are now eyeing a big government spending bill that Congress is expected to take up at the end of the year as a possible vehicle to pass a ban on electric shock devices.

“This should be on every member’s list of things that need to be included in that package,” she said.

Officials with the Rotenberg Center say that 51 people at the center currently use the electrical stimulation devices — which they call a “treatment of last resort” — through court-approved and monitored plans.

“While we are pleased that the provision related to the life-saving electrical stimulation device (ESD) treatment was not included in the FDA reauthorization bill, the parents and guardians of clients of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) will remain vigilant to ensure that that this treatment remains available to those for whom all other treatment options have been tried and failed,” the Rotenberg Center said in a statement. “Allowing the use of ESDs as part of these clients’ treatment plans is a matter of life or death.”

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