Wolf Wolfensberger, The Principle of Normalization in Human Services, 1972

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

Complete original source available here.

Educational psychologist Wolf Wolfensberger was the most prominent advocate of normalization in the United States. His 1972 book on the subject influenced human service reformers, professionals, and activists who sought to extend the benefits of disability rights to individuals with developmental disabilities. They considered normalization an ideal that would transform the lives of people with developmental disabilities, including children and adults with autism. In this excerpt, Wolfensberger introduced the concept of human management and defined normalization. Although he conceded that it had become a “captivating watchword,” he also noted that the implications of the normalization principle were not yet widely appreciated, suggesting that they might be very challenging to achieve in practice.


Wolf Wofensberger (courtesy of the Wolf Wolfensberger Collection, Special Collections Department, McGoogan Library of Medicine, UNMC)

[T]his book will make frequent use of the term ‘human management’. More formally, we might define this term as referring to ‘entry of individuals or agencies, acting in societally sanctioned capacities, into the functioning spheres of individuals, families, or larger social systems in order to maintain or change conditions with the intention of benefitting such individuals, their family or other social systems, or society in general.’ The term ‘human management’, it is hoped, will help to keep us humble and perceptive of what we do and are, and of that part of our functioning that we are often inclined to deny.

At this point, I want to state the three goals that this book is intended to achieve: to explain, clarify, and elaborate the principle of normalization as a system of human management; to ‘translate’ it from its Scandinavian origins so as to make it fully relevant to the North American scene; and to bring the principle to the attention of a broad range of human management disciplines….

Until about 1969, the term ‘normalization’ had never been heard by most workers in human service areas. Today, it is a captivating watchword standing for a whole new ideology of human management.

To the best of my knowledge, the concept of normalization owes its first promulgation to Bank-Mikkelsen, head of the Danish Mental Retardation Service, who phrased it in terms of his own field as follows: ‘letting the mentally retarded obtain an existence as close to the normal as possible.’ Bank-Mikkelsen was instrumental in having this principle written into the 1959 Danish law governing services to the mentally retarded.

However, it was not until 1969 that the principle was systematically stated and elaborated in the literature by Nirje, who was then executive director of the Swedish Association for Retarded Children…. In his 1969 chapter, Nirje phrased the principle as follows: ‘making available to the mentally retarded patterns and conditions of everyday life which are as close to possible to the norms and patterns of the mainstream of society’….

For purposes of a North American audience, and for broadest adaptability to human management in general, I propose that the definition of the normalization principle can be further refined 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’.

From the proposed reformulation it is immediately apparent that the normalization principle is culture-specific, because cultures vary in their norms. For instance, normalization does not necessarily mean that human services should resemble Scandinavian services. It does mean that as much as possible, human management means should be typical of our own culture; and that a (potentially) deviant person should be enabled to emit behaviors and an appearance appropriate (normative) within that culture for persons of similar circumstances, such as age and sex. The term ‘normative’ is intended to have statistical rather than moral connotations, and could be equated with ‘typical’ or ‘conventional’….

The normalization principle as stated is deceptively simple. Many individuals will agree to it wholeheartedly while lacking awareness of even the most immediate and major corollaries and implications. Indeed, many human managers endorse the principle readily while engaging in practices quite opposed to it….

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