Valuing Lives
Wolf Wolfensberger and the Principle of Normalization


“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

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. His teachings grew in scope and complexity as he addressed such controversial topics as society’s willingness to abbreviate the lives of those who are devalued, a process he called “deathmaking.” While his ideas continued to influence the direction of human services, Wolfensberger’s confrontational approach attracted fewer students and smaller audiences. When asked if there was any reason for optimism, Wolfesnberger responsed that the indicators are grim, and that “things have to get a lot worse before a lot of people recover reality.”

“You might not find a lot of hope there [in Wolfensberger’s teaching]. But it was a voice that needed to be heard and reckoned with.” – Bill Gaventa

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.