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The Convergence of Disability Law and Policy: Core Concepts, Ethical Communities, and the Notion of Dignity

Interview with Rud Turnbull
Produced by Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities

Aversive Therapy: The "Learning to be Better Box"

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Rud Turnbull: The other thing I want to say is people have asked how to get how did you get into this business? And it wasn't just because of Jay. It's because the Governor of North Carolina called me up one day and said, "I want you to do serve on a committee that I'm creating to monitor something called "aversive therapy." It's going on at one of the state institutions, and I don't know anything about it, but I'm hearing bad news about it. So go out there and find out what's all about."

Well, I went out to the state institution and psychiatrists and psychologists and educators and qualified mental retardation professionals, etc., were talking about baseline data. Well, I was a kid from New York City, and here I am in this institution in North Carolina and they're talking about baseline. For me, baseline was Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers, home to first, to second, to third, back to home base. That was baseline. Well, I learned what baseline was.

And they started talking about something called the "learning to be better box." I said, "What is that?" "Well, it's a little technique we have to help people with intellectual disability behave appropriately." I said, "Well you didn't answer my question."

And so we sort of danced around it, and I said, "What is the learning to be better box?" They said, "Well, it's this little technique that we have." I said, "You're dodging." I said, "I need specifics." They said, "Well, it's a little box." I said, "I know it's a box. You just told me it's a box. Now, I want to see it." "Oh, no, no. It's in another building." I said, "I don't care whether it's in another building or not. You go get that box and you show it to me. And if you don't, I'm going to go back to the Governor and I'm going to tell the Governor that you refuse to disclose what you're doing here at this at this institution, and then you can take the consequences of what I'm going to tell the Governor. Or you can show me the box."

Time passes, a few minutes, and they come back and there's this little wooden box about 4 inches wide, 4 inches high, and 4 inches deep. It has two little battery nodules sticking out of the top with a copper wire connecting the two and a little switch on the side. I said, "Well, tell me how this thing works."

They said, "Very simply. When one of the residents at this institution misbehave, we chase 'em down and we lift up his shirt or her shirt and we turn on the box and we it emits a shock and we put it on their lower abdomen, which is a very sensitive part of their body, and that teaches them not to misbehave." I said, "Well, have any of you ever used this on yourself?" "Oh, no, no. No, this is for them. It's not for us." And I said, "Well, let me see that box." And I said, "How does it work?" And they said, "We turn the switch on and it activates the batteries and then the little copper wire"

So I put the box on the table and I stood up. I took my blazer off, I rolled the sleeve on my shirt up, I turned on the switch, and I put the box on my arm. Well, let me tell you. It's shocking. It was shocking what they were doing, and it shocked me. And I thought to myself, if this is what is happening in North Carolina, then something is amiss and to quote Shakespeare, "Cursed spite, that I was born to set it right!?"

I went back and I spoke to the man who was the director of the program where I worked at the University at Chapel Hill, and I told him what was going on, and I said, "If you'll give me half a day a week as part of my work duties, I want to start looking into something about North Carolina disability law." And that was the second point of the third point of entering into this business. First, the birth of my son. Second, my marriage to Ann and the first thing we'll do is bring Jay home. And the third point of entry was the work at on aversive intervention.

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