"As a last resort"

Content warning: This is a graphic post about brutality towards people with disabilities. ABA and justifications for abuse are discussed. Proceed with caution.

People do a lot of brutal things to people with disabilities, including children.

Some examples: pinning them to the floor, punishing them with electric shocks, medicating them into immobility, putting them in 10-40 hours a week of repetitive behavioral therapy, taking away everything they care about and making them earn it by complying with therapy, taking away their food, and confining them in small places.

These things are now somewhat politically unpopular. We identify, as a culture, as having got past that point. We think of this kind of brutality as something that happened in the past, even though it is still common.

What this means in practice is that whenever people do brutal things to someone with a disability, it will be called the last resort. People doing the brutal things will claim that they minimize them, that there are protections in place, and that they only do them when necessary.

For example, this is an excerpt from the (as of this post) current ethical standards for BCBAs (certified ABA experts):

“4.05 Reinforcement/Punishment.

The behavior analyst recommends reinforcement rather than punishment whenever possible. If punishment procedures are necessary, the behavior analyst always includes reinforcement procedures for alternative behavior in the program.

4.06 Avoiding Harmful Reinforcers. RBT

The behavior analyst minimizes the use of items as potential reinforcers that maybe harmful to the long-term health of the client or participant (e.g., cigarettes, sugar or fat-laden food), or that may require undesirably marked deprivation procedures as motivating operations.”

In other words, the current standards of ethics for ABA practices explicitly allow punishment, harmful reinforcers, and “undesirably marked deprivation procedures”. But, they claim to “minimize” it, and only do it when they consider it necessary in some way.

This is an empty claim. Everyone who has ever used harmful reinforcers and brutal punishments has claimed that they are only used when they are necessary. Even the people who deprived children of food and made them live and study on electrified floors (graphic link, proceed with caution.) Even the electric shocks and food deprivation used by the Judge Rotenburg Center do not violate the BCBA ethical guidelines, because they claim that they are necessary and only used in extreme cases (even though they shock people for things like standing up from chairs without permission.) 

Whenever any of this is done to someone, it will be justified as “a last resort”. Even if it’s an explicit part of their plan. Even if it’s done regularly with no attempt to transition to another approach. Even if nothing else has ever been tried. Someone who is treated brutally will be assumed to have deserved it.

People call things last resorts to justify doing them. They choose to do brutal things to a vulnerable person, but they think of it as inevitable because it is “the last resort”. Calling something “the last resort” means “it’s that person’s fault I’m doing this; I could not possibly do otherwise.”


Treating someone in your care brutally and then blaming them for your choices is inexcusable. 


To those treated brutally and told it was a last resort: I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m even more sorry if it’s still happening. It’s not your fault. It’s not because of anything you did, and it’s not because there’s anything wrong with your mind. You were abused because others chose to abuse you.