William Bronston MD 2008, In Contemporary Appreciation of a Unique Teacher and Human Being: Wolf Wolfensberger
No one in the Twentieth Century has had such a profound impact on the language, content, imagery, integrity, cadre training efforts or literature in the field of developmental disabilities as Wolf Wolfensberger. It can be said that, given this monumental contribution, mediated through hundreds, and thousands, of human service workers whose efforts and perspectives have been shaped by his direct and indirect teaching, the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of different people, have been transformed. Not a small endowment. In fact, if there were a Nobel Prize to be given in “Human Services” or “Societal Values”, Wolf would be on the very short list for that recognition.
There is no more riveting lecturer, more avid student of history, sociology, Western religious philosophy, psychology, community systems design and organizing than this septuagenarian. The extensive presentation of his thinking and insights into the human service field from its earliest beginnings in Western society is a tour d’ force of scholarship and altogether unmatched brilliant analysis. Its sheer volume, relentless unfolding story filled with all the indelible superstitions, sacred and profane human foibles, its chronicling of mankind’s progress and tragedies forging millennial legacies which comprise the practices and beliefs of the present, is unprecedented in scope, significance, originality and truth telling.
Wolf asks and gives no quarter in his authoritative and judgmental telling of this story. It is a drama presented through his lens of morality, express value and historical traumas that were burned into his soul witnessing the monstrosities of the Third Reich Nazism that was main stage during his boyhood in Germany. Here was the culmination of sanctioned “death-making”, the model whereby grey unmarked transport buses carted off the mass denizens of the German state institutions that, in the mid 30s, housed those who came to be labeled “mentally dead”…to their physical extermination, before the regime’s “Final Solution” was thrown into full gear. He is very, very clear about the inescapable logic of devaluing human beings, the consequences of professionally codified dehumanization that surely leads to the extermination of those souls a society labels, perceives, and markets as “less than human”. First what dies is social status, then individual identity, then independent spirit, then sanctity of flesh and bone and finally, with the chards of existence that remain…life altogether, not defined as life of any kind when the execution legitimately occurs.
The layers of human history that Wolf turns open, using the phenomenon of labeling others and the promulgation of image through the eyes of the purveyors of each societies establishments is his marker. He examines, as our species increased in numbers, journeyed from one paradigm of belief to another, agonized through wars, pestilence, technological and societal evolution, how the methodical multiplication of alienation from each other occurs and its attendant violence, that seems to be a pitiless pattern.
These lessons he frames would normally be a terrible turn-off for those who may concede to a changeless “human nature” or feel themselves powerless or constrained from playing a confident and active role in promoting social justice, compassion, dignity, transformation and empowerment for all our kind. However, there are those who derive great strength and courage, experience breakthrough insights that things don’t have to be this way, when they get clear about how awful things have been, For these seekers, Wolf is a pure infusion of hope, vision, leadership and breathtaking brilliance…just the medicine needed to antidote so much of the illness that afflict our lifetime of global and cultural “might makes right” politics.
Here is the story of the ancient origin and Odyssey of human services to the present, concentrated, distilled, spun with indelible meaning, unique insights, and withering indictments, that deliver what for most is just the way it is. But, for the self-conscious member of our “polis”, the citizen student, the instinctive change agent, the role model aspirant for the humanization of all our lives — these rare, rare teachings are without equal. Here the truths Wolf presents give us the possibility of genuine choices, freedom from the past tyrannies, to invent, to live into a completely different present and future of our conscious, value based design. Wolf Wolfensberger has no peer in gathering and offering this cultural and historical story and its challenges. This encyclopedic set of timeless lectures and inspired teaching will change your fundamental understanding of how things really are and work in society…and…will change your life if you are willing to use the X–ray vision he bestows on us.
William Bronston, MD
Steven, J. Taylor, 2011, Introduction to special issue of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities | December 2011
Wolf Peregrin Joachim Wolfensberger died on February 27, 2011, at the age of 76. Wolf is best known for popularizing the principle of normalization in the 1970s and later developing the concept of social role valorization. He also promoted citizen advocacy, and his efforts resulted in the establishment of numerous initiatives to support one-to-one relationships between people with disabilities and people without disabilities. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 20th century.
Wolf was a prolific author. One would be hard- pressed to come up with anyone who has published more original articles in the journals of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities than he did. He published an astonishing 50 articles in the American Journal of Mental Deficiency (now the American Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) and Mental Retardation (now Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities), in addition to eight book reviews, over the course of his career. His first article in the American Journal of Mental Deficiency was published in 1960: ‘‘Schizophrenia in Mental Retardates: Three Hypotheses.’’ In 1964, he published his first article in Mental Retardation: ‘‘Some Observations on European Programs for the Mentally Retarded.’’ The last article of his career, ‘‘Idiocy and Madness in Princely European Families,’’ was published in the February 2011 issue of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
This issue of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities is devoted to reprints of a small number of the almost 40 articles Wolf published in this journal. He was careful in his choice of language and used terminology to refer to people with intellectual disabilities that others might find objectionable. He justified his choice of language in a number of published works. For historical accuracy, the language he used when his articles were first published has been retained in these reprints.
Wolf was always thought-provoking and often provocative and controversial. One does not need to agree with everything Wolf wrote to recognize his tremendous contributions to our field. He stands among a small group of leaders in the 1960s and 1970s who radically changed how we think about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and how we treat them.
Steve Taylor (1949-2014),
then Editor of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, in a special issue that republished 9 of Wolfensberger’s articles.
Exceptional Parent, November 2008, p. 54
Exceptional Parent has chosen 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.
John O’Brien 2011, Celebrating The Genius of Wolf Wolfensberger – Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 36(1-2), 76-79
For 50 years, people with intellectual disabilities, their families, and their allies have participated in a profound, if incomplete, shift in how their place in society is valued and understood, in the ways their possibilities for development and contribution can be imagined, and in the means available to assist them to lead good lives. As the persistent shadows of eugenics and Social Darwinism have diminished and practices of segregation and bureaucratic control have increasingly been supplanted, it has become possible to meet growing numbers of people with disabilities who live good lives in ordinary communities. Unfil his death on 27 February 2011, Wolf Wolfensberger poured his genius into the entire half-century of this shift (p. 76).
Wolf was a charismatic presence with a great love of life. He was a gifted and demanding teacher. He intentionally built networks of people in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway whom he considered potential leaders by engaging them in intensive and rigorous workshops, recruiting them into team experiences, and assigning them responsibility for presenting and writing about the foundations, content, and implications of the theories that he judged would best respond to the real needs of marginalized and vulnerable people (p. 76).
A heart open to the lives of people with developmental disabilities gave him purpose and a lifetime of insights. From his first encounter with institutions as a psychology intern, he was outraged at the way people were treated and by the moral complacency of those responsible for their management. Experience convinced him that communicating trust and high expectations reliably elicited growth, even among those he met and served in the most violent and degraded environments (p. 77).
Glenys Mann and Christa van Kraayenoord (2011) The Influence of Wolf Wolfensberger and His Ideas
Wolfensberger’s ideas have impacted on many aspects of the lives of people with disabilities and their families as well as on service providers, governments and agencies. His ideas can be seen in the historical contexts of rights, normalisation, integration and inclusion as well as in the more contemporary contexts of participation, engagement and advocacy. Their influence has been on the ways of thinking about disability and community, on policies related to housing, services and education, and to practices in these domains.
From the Inclusion Network
His teachings had a profound influence on the core values and principles of Community Living associations across Canada. Through his work, he shaped our beliefs about how we should support people and their families . . . No other body of work has been as influential in shaping the way that people think and act with respect to the inclusion of people who have an intellectual disability in our society. (http://inclusionnetwork.ning.com/profiles/ blogs/wolf-wolfensberger-memorial)
Wesley J. Smith (2011) First Things Blog (17 march 2011)
Wolf Wolfensberger made more than a few waves in his long career, and stepped on even more toes. But he also saved many lives and protected those least able to defend themselves. That’s a pretty darned good resume to take on the journey to whatever comes next.
From Community Living Ontario
We are saddened today to learn of the passing of Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger this past weekend. His death is a great loss to not only the thousands who embraced his research and teachings, but to the thousands whose lives have been changed by the values and principles he espoused.
Wolf Wolfensberger was made an honourary life member of Community Living Ontario in 1979 and was honoured at the conference at Queen’s University that year. He was also presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 Community Living Conference in London, Ontario.
Wolfensberger led the Normalization movement in North America and formulated the concepts of Social Role Valorization and Normalization. His teachings had a profound influence on the core values and principles of Community Living associations across Canada. Through his work, he shaped our beliefs about how we should support people and their families. He taught us that when people are supported to achieve socially valued roles, they inevitably develop meaningful relationships and rich lives in community. No other body of work has been as influential in shaping the way that people think and act with respect to the inclusion of people who have an intellectual disability in our society.
In 1991 Normalization was ranked as # 1 in the “Education and Training in Mental Retardation” list of 25 classic works in the field and 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.
Our hearts and prayers are with his family and friends.