One of the Seven Wonders in the World of Disability – Wolf Wolfensberger

The phrase doesn't roll off the tongue like: I have a Dream; or Yes We Can.  But it had a stirring impact on a generation of disability right activists, including me.

The phrase is: “the utilization of means that are culturally normative in order to establish and/or maintain personal behaviors and characteristics that are culturally normative.”

The author was Wolf Wolfensberger and he died Saturday February 27th.

It led to a conceptual breakthrough on the importance of challenging cultural stereotypes about people with disabilities if you want to make profound change.  Otherwise your change will rest on shaky ground and become merely tactical.  That's why we no longer, for the most part, call adults with disabilities, children.  If you want people to act like adult, treat them accordingly.

It spawned an assortment of rabble rousing challenges, campaigns, and law suits to end segregation, close institutions, establish community based services, critique well meaning charitable campaigns based on pity and much more.  Efforts still bearing fruit today.

He made you squirm, so relentless was his scholarship, insight, damming critique and presentations.  More old testament prophet than smooth community organizer.  In the days before multi-media, his required workshop setup was three large screens and 3 overhead projectors. All operating simultaneously – each word-dense transparency like drinking from a fire hose.

He broke all the presentation rules but you kept coming back because he talked about things you had never thought of and he was probably right about most of them.

He introduced the term normalization to North America – got it into the water supply. 

But here's Wolfenberger's genius – he realized normalization was more than an objective.  It was a means.  You can't learn to live in the community from an institution.  You can't graduate from a segregated school or classroom and expect to be treated like everyone else by your fellow citizens haven't grown up with you. 

Imagine teaching someone to knit by letting them play with the yarn, not allowing them to use the needles and permitting them to occasionally watch you knit from the other side of a glass porthole.  Would you learn to knit?  Of course not. Would the people on the other side of the glass see you as a competent knitter?  Likely not.  Yet that pedagogy and service mentality justified unimaginable deprivation, abuse and wasted lives.

You can see why he was such a threat to traditional service providers and professionals who 'knew best.'

There is an important Canadian link to Wolfensberger's influence.  The then named Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded (now Association for Community Living) provided sanctuary for his controversial ideas in the early seventies to write his groundbreaking book:  The principle of normalization in human services. And to train a generation of activists like Tom Cain, Linda Tarrant, Michael Kendrik, Zana Lutfiyya, Diane Richler, Jacques Pelletier, Andre Blanchet, Mitch Loreth, Bruce Uditsky (and many more) whose leadership continues to shape the world of disability, globally.

We accept integration, inclusion, independent living as legitimate public policy objectives nowadays.  We close institutions, establish community based human services, try to make them responsive to each individual and their family, sign UN the Charter on Human Rights for Persons with Disabilities, and watch Hollywood movies which in their own way, profile abilities and help to erode pity and charity stereotypes.   It all started with him.  We've been arguing over the details ever since.

North America isn't perfect but it is decidedly different, post Normalization, post Wolfensberger.  British Columbia, for example, got rid of its segregated schools in the 80's and closed the last of its 3 major institutions before the millenium.  That involved a lot of hard work.  But Wolfensberger's 'dream' and 'yes we can' attitude became ours. 

In 2006 Exceptional Parent magazine named “the Work of Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger on the Principles of Normalization and Social Role Valorization” as one of the 7 Wonders of the World of Disabilities.

Now, alas, there are only six.

Related Posts:

Geraldo Rivero – Unlikely Crusader


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  1. Mary Beth Paul

    Well put, Al, and your comments mirror my own experiences when WW was involved with Syracuse l’Arche way back when Burt Blatt was at Syracuse U and “Normalization” was being widespread across the continent. You captured exactly the old testament prophet as well as the experience of attending his low-tech presentations. Spot on!
    A little note of irony to add here: When asked to write a review of
    his monograph “The future of children with significant impairments: What parents fear and want, and what they, and others may be able to do about it”, I found it to be on the morose side and would just make parents despair. Instead, I recommended that they purchase and use your book “A Good Life” which covered much of the same ground but was so much more accessible, not to mention, HOPEFUL.
    I think that’s what is called an “embodiment of an ideal”. Which means that you took WW’s words to heart and put them into action in your own way. No better tribute than that.

  2. Gord Tulloch

    Alas, Wolfe Wolfensberger is gone. He was a paragon for desinstituionalization. A pioneer for change. His ideas still resound in the world of community living. He brought people out of institutions and into community. He was the force of change.
    As with all things, we change. Postmodernism, feminism, disability theory now challenges us to question what is normal. Because of Wolfe, we have moved from the demand for normal lives, the first priority for those consigned to the shadows, to the new demand for welcoming diversity. To celebrate all ways of being, without demanding conformance to one set of beliefs or values. To invite community to think and feel past what is “normal,” which is now a problematic assumption, to embracing the richness of our diverse world. The new “normal” is recognizing we are all different, and that we all need the freedom and opportunity to pursue the good life, and that there is space in the world, in our communities, to accomodate our differences.

  3. Al Etmanski

    Thanks Mary Beth – One of the honours of my life was being asked to speak about A Good Life at the SRV conference a few years ago in Ottawa with Wolf in the audience. Glad you liked the book.

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