Wolf Wolfensberger

Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger (1934-2011) was the originator of Social Role Valorization and the Normalization Principle, concepts that strongly influenced disability policy and practice in the US and Canada. He was widely recognized as a major contributor to the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 20th century had a reputation for being a stirring and controversial speaker.

Dr. Wolfensberger was born in Mannheim, Germany and emigrated at age 16 to the US. His undergraduate degree was earned at Siena College in Memphis, Tennessee; he earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology at St. Louis University and a doctorate in psychology from Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University) where he specialized in mental retardation and special education.

His professional positions included postings at Muscatatuck State School (Indiana), E.R. Johnstone Training Center (New Jersey), Maudsley Hospital (London, England), Plymouth State Home and Training School (Michigan), Nebraska Psychiatric Institute of the University of Nebraska Medical School, National Institute on Mental Retardation in Toronto, Canada, and the Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.

He was the author and co-author of more than 40 books and monographs, and more than 250 chapters and articles. His writing has been translated into 11 languages. His best known books were Changing Patterns in Residential Services for the Mentally Retarded, The Principle of Normalization, PASS, and PASSING.

In recent years, Dr. Wolfensberger became increasingly concerned with the decline in functionality of service systems, and the need to emphasize personal relationships between valued and devalued people.

Dr Wolfensberger’s work was recognized by the magazine ‘Exceptional Parent’ as one of the great 7 contributions to the lives of people with disabilities, along with Salk and the polio vaccine, braille, Americans with Disabilities Act and the wheelchair.

In today’s world the concept that ALL people should have the same rights and civil liberties and the same access to everyday living conditions and circumstances as everyone else, regardless of disabilities either physical or cognitive, seems a forgone conclusion. Of course, they should. But when the young Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger was first advancing and expanding the principle of Normalization, first devised by Scandinavian Bengt Nirje in the 1960s, and formulating the concept of Social Role Valorization (SRV) in the 1970s and 80s, it was far from a forgone conclusion. In fact, Dr. Wolfensberger can remember heated debates with his academic colleagues, a few he says, “which almost digressed to physical violence.” But what are the principles of Normalization and Social Role Valorization? Quoting directly from the extensive literature done by Nirje and Wolfensberger:

“The normalization principle means making available to all people with disabilities patterns of life and conditions of everyday living which are as close as possible to the regular circumstances and ways of life or society.”

As Wolfensberger continued to hone the principle of Social Role Valorization, he defined it as “the application of what science can tell us about the enablement, establishment, enhancement, maintenance, and/or defense of valued social roles for people” (Susan Thomas and Wolf Wolfensberger in Flynn and Lemay 1999, p. 125).

In other words, Wolfensberger’s work recognizes that society often tends to label groups of people as fundamentally “different.” This label often means that society looks at these as having less value as everyone else. Based on this premise, a cataloging of the methods of this devaluation and an analysis of its effects on people, groups, and society ensues. And from this foundation, the natural next step is that advocates can seek to fight, debunk, and counteract these societal pigeonholes. Exceptional Parent magazine chose Dr. Wolfensberger and his work as one of its 7 Wonders because of the major effects the principle of Normalization and the principle of Social Role Valorization have had on the way human services for people with disabilities have been structured and are delivered throughout North America, Australia, Europe, and the United Kingdom. In fact, that these services developed at all is, in part, a result of Wolfensberger’s voice.

A video montage describing the impact of Dr. Wolfensberger’s life work on establishing the intrinsic value of all people is available to view on YouTube: Wolf Wolfensberger Revised.” Duration (3:55)

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