Jan Nisbet and Nancy Weiss, "Pain and Shock in America: Politics, Advocacy, and the Controversial Treatment of People with Disabilities" (Brandeis UP, 2021)


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Amid a string of fall 2021 news reports about past-due exonerations and (white) self-defense that document the limits of racial justice within the U.S. legal system, Pain and Shock in America: Politics, Advocacy, and the Controversial Treatment of People with Disabilities (Brandeis University Press, 2021) becomes an even more relevant and timely book. Dr. Jan Nisbet, who authored the book with contributions from Nancy Weiss, introduces it succinctly: “The story is long, complicated, and filled with questions about society and its ability to care about, protect, and support the most vulnerable citizens. It is a story that calls into question the degree to which people who do not have disabilities can separate themselves from those who do, allowing painful interventions that they themselves would not likely tolerate” (2021, p. 8). If justice is central to evaluations of the social policies and public institutions charged with administering it, disability–as core issue theorized in philosophies of justice–must be centered as well (Putnam et al., 2019).

To this end, Pain and Shock in America “intentionally highlights the hard-fought battles of disabled survivors like Jennifer Msumba and disabled-led advocacy organizations like the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network,” as “disabled self-advocates (who also happen to be lawyers)” (Nisbet 2021, p. vii-viii) Shain M. Neumeier and Lydia X.Z. Brown write in the Foreword––themselves appearing in the book as leaders with critical roles. The volume chronicles a nearly half-century saga involving the law, education, psychology, and medical fields as they converge in methods and culture of The Judge Rotenberg Center, a privately-run facility in Massachusetts which, despite six student deaths and consistent frequent citations for abuse and neglect, has been funded by taxpayers from about a dozen states and our nation’s capital as a placement for students with disabilities. Though its use of a self-made electric shock device makes the Judge Rotenberg Center unique in the country and perhaps the world, its institutional history provides a broader if extreme “lens through which we can understand the societal issues facing people with disabilities and their families” (Nisbet 2021, p. 10)

Jan Nisbet is professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, where she served for ten years as the senior vice provost for research. Before assuming that position, she was the founding director of the Institute on Disability and professor in the Department of Education. She has been principal investigator on many state- and nationally-funded projects related to children and adults with disabilities.

Nancy R. Weiss is a faculty member and the Director of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities at the University of Delaware. She is the former Executive Director of TASH, an international advocacy association committed to the full inclusion of people with disabilities. She has more than forty years of experience in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities and has worked extensively providing community living and positive behavioral supports.

Christina A. Bosch is an assistant professor of special education in the Literacy, Early, Bilingual and Special Education Department of the Kremen School of Education and Human Development at California State University Fresno; on Twitter as @DocCABosch

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