SRV History

Until the 1970’s in the United States and Canada, provisions (one can hardly call them ‘services’) for people with intellectual impairments were totally dominated by large, locked institutions, in which people were confined in nightmarish conditions. In response to a scandal at the state institution in Nebraska in the late 1960’s, the governor appointed a citizen’s commission to look into abuses and propose remedial steps. Wolf Wolfensberger, a professor at the University of Nebraska medical college, was appointed to the commission and became its intellectual driving force. The governor’s commission of parents, civic leaders, and academics went beyond its original mandate and developed proposals for a system of community services to replace the institution, implementations of which was effectively begun.

The Nebraska initiative responded to negative (in fact abysmal) conditions of segregation and even dehumanization. But Dr. Wolfensberger introduced positive principles to guide their proposals, based partly on an idea he had encountered from Sweden and Denmark called “normalization.” Provisions for people with impairments should, that principle posited, be as much as possible like those for ordinary (valued) citizens, using normal settings and interaction patterns and rhythms of the day, week, and year.

First in Nebraska, then in two years as a visiting scholar at the National Institute on Mental Retardation in Toronto, Wolfensberger systematized and taught this new “principle of normalization,” especially extending the Scandinavian idea to include social integration of people into the larger community, and extending its application to any devalued group, not only people with intellectual impairment. He wrote the hugely influential text by the same title, and he began to teach multi-day workshops in understanding and implementing the principle.

These workshops were called PASS (Program Analysis of Service Systems), a training and program evaluation instrument developed with Wolfensberger and Linda Glenn in 1973. Workshops were first taught in Toronto and at Syracuse University (where Wolfenberger joined the faculty in 1973 and founded his Training Institute), and scores of these five- and six-day workshops were taught in many states and provinces through the 1970’s and 80’s. In 1980, Wolfensberger and Susan Thomas developed a clearer and more effective program evaluation instrument, PASSING, which has been used ever since not only for powerful evaluation of programs and systems, but also to teach normalization and its successor principle, Social Role Valorization, in multi-day workshops. Also during the 1980’s, Wolfensberger and his associates taught these principles at workshops extending beyond Canada and the United States to several other countries, especially Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

Parallel to the refinement of PASS into PASSING, Wolfensberger and associates in the early 1980’s refined and added to the ideas which underlay them. The key explanatory and strategic power of social roles became central to the teaching, and the principle of Social Role Valorization was developed and elaborated. It is now taught in workshops and colleges and universities through much of the world, and has inspired thousands of workers, parents, and people with impairments in improving services, improving people’s life conditions, and improving our communities.

Valuing Lives: Wolf Wolfensberger and the Principle of Normalization – A one hour documentary on the history of Normalization and SRV

“No major change in the world was ever accomplished by a rational strategic plan. It was accomplished by completely unreasonable people who dared to be bolder than everybody else.” – Al Etmanski

Valuing Lives – Trailer and Information

Through archival images and footage, and dozens of interviews, “Valuing Lives” explores the principle of normalization, an idea that challenged our fundamental assumptions about people with intellectual disabilities, and the iconoclastic professor whose intense, multi-day workshops trained thousands of human services professionals in the theory and practice of this idea.

Originating in Scandinavia in the 1960s, normalization meant “making available to all people with disabilities the patterns of life and conditions of everyday living which are as close as possible to the regular circumstances and ways of life or society.” In the early 1970s, professor and change agent Wolf Wolfensberger expanded normalization into a framework for human services. His book Normalization, published in 1972, became wildly popular and provided a theoretical blueprint for community inclusion as the deinstitutionalization movement was gaining strength. His formulation of normalization swept through the field of disabilities and had a significant effect on the design of services and supports, in North America and internationally. This represented a sea change in thinking at a time when it was considered normal to warehouse nearly 200,000 Americans with intellectual disabilities in large institutions.

By the 1980s, the argument had been won and institutions, albeit slowly, were being phased out. The term “normalization,” widely misused, was replaced by Wolfensberger with Social Role Valorization, a complex expansion of his ideas with a greater emphasis on social roles.

Gunnar Dybwad, an international leader in the field of disabilities, used to say, “When we kill our dragons, we need to make sure they remain dead.” We still have institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, and some parents are calling for new, segregated communities where their children will be safer “with their own kind.” And we still need to think critically about how to best support individuals with intellectual disabilities in living lives full of freedom, personalization, choice-making, friendships, and valued social roles that are normal for most people in society.

“We need people like Wolf. We needed him then and we need people like Wolf now to pull the veil away. We also need people to help steer us back on course.” – Chas Moseley

It is time for a new generation to rediscover the principle of normalization and ensure that all people who are devalued in society have access to the good things in life.

Valuing Lives: Wolf Wolfensberger and the Principle of Normalization was directed by Jerry Smith; produced by Guy Caruso and Jerry Smith; executive producer Amy Hewitt.

Wolf Wolfensberger - In honor of a Man & His Life's Work
SRV Journal - A helpful addition to the International SRV Training Culture