Dr. Wolfensberger first gained prominence by his teaching and promotion of the principle of normalization. Normalization originated in the Scandinavian countries in the late 1960s, and was first applied only to mentally retarded people. Its 1969 formulation by the Swede Bengt Nirje called for “making available to the mentally retarded patterns and conditions of everyday life which are as close as possible to the norms and patterns of the mainstream of society.” This simple statement was ground-breaking, considering the profoundly abnormal conditions of life that then prevailed for mentally retarded people, and most especially in institutions for them. These places tended to be quite big, congregating together large numbers of people with all sorts of maladaptive behaviors; located in bleak settings far from their families or any population clusters, with barren buildings and virtually no meaningful or productive occupation for their residents. The people who lived in them ended up virtually cut off from ordinary society, and often died there in obscurity. Once Dr. Wolfensberger had been exposed to the idea of normalization, and once he had visited the Scandinavian countries and seen the services there that were based on normalization, he embraced the principle and began to write and teach about it to North American audiences. His book, The Principle of Normalization in Human Services, was published in 1972 by the “Institute” – Canadian National Institute on Mental Retardation, and eventually sold over 100,000 copies. In 1991, using a Delphi technique, Heller and his colleagues found that the book was the most influential publication in the field in the 2nd half of the XXth century. (The book is out of print but available on the web)

However, he expanded the Scandinavian formulation of the principle so that it could be applied to any group of people whom sociologists would identify as “deviant,” and whom he termed “devalued” in and by their society. And he also adapted the definition so as to include both service processes and outcomes, as follows: “Utilization of means which are as culturally normative as possible, in order to establish and/or maintain personal behaviors and characteristics which are as culturally normative as possible.” In addition to sales of the normalization book mentioned above, the message of normalization was also spread through the medium of training workshops, lasting from one to three days, in which the plight of devalued people was spelled out, and then normalization was presented as a contrast.

Bengt Nirje, Robert Perske, Wolf Wolfensberger & G. Allan Roeher, ca 1970.Bengt Nirje, Robert Perske, Wolf Wolfensberger & G. Allan Roeher, ca 1970.

Normalization was taught as having two dimensions, one of interaction and one of interpretation. The most eye-opening was that of interpretation, because for the first time it pointed to how handicapped and other devalued people were portrayed and imaged in the media, in society at large, by service names and logos, by where services were located and what they were next to. For instance, many services to handicapped people were located in the worst parts of town, next to a garbage dump or a cemetery, or far remote from where anyone else lived. And people who were devalued for one condition (such as mental impairment) would be served with and juxtaposed to those who were devalued for another (such as for being aged, or poor). These types of juxtapositions hurt the image of the people at issue, yet image plays a big part in attitudes towards a group of people, and in willingness to extend to them opportunities to participate in valued society. The interaction dimension emphasized the importance of high expectancies for people, of opening doors of opportunity and not unnecessarily segregating people especially from models of adaptive behavior.

The idea of normalization caught on like wildfire in the mid-1970s in the field of mental retardation, and then spread to other fields of impairment. Handicapped people began to live in small houses and apartments in the community, they began to attend school with non-handicapped pupils and to go to work, they followed ordinary schedules and routines, and started to enjoy many of the rights and privileges of their non-handicapped age peers. In many locales, institutions were considerably reduced in size, and in some places they were closed altogether. Even where they were not, their conditions were often greatly improved. However, while the term normalization was widely embraced, the complexities of the principle were not always understood or implemented. This led to many of what Dr. Wolfensberger termed “perversions” of normalization, such as abandoning impaired people to fend for themselves in society without any supports. Thus, his teaching from the mid-1970s on also tried to combat these misunderstandings, and to continually refine the definition and the teaching of normalization so as to make the perversions less likely.

One of the major ways in which normalization and its implications to human services were taught was via the PASS tool for assessing human service quality, and specifically its adherence to normalization. A separate entry on this site discusses PASS, and its successor PASSING.

Susan Thomas (April 2017)

Heller, H. W.; Spooner, F.; Schilit, J.; Enright, B. E.; Haney, K. (1991). Classic Articles: A Reflection into the Field of Mental Retardation. Education and Training in Mental Retardation. Council for Exceptional Children, Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities. 26 (2): 202–206.

Wolfensberger, Wolf P. (1972). The Principle of Normalization In Human Services. Toronto: National Institute on Mental Retardation.