Normalization was a term associated with the work of American educational psychologist Wolf Wolfensberger during the 1970s that originated in Scandinavian law and social policy after World War II. It represented a philosophical commitment to the common humanity of people with developmental disabilities, a theoretical rationale for their integration, and a practical blueprint for achieving greater equality by enhancing their social status. Normalization was closely tied to deinstitutionalization as well as mainstreaming and inclusion in special education.

In 1975, for example, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act offered a federal guarantee of free public education to all children with disabilities for the first time in U.S. history, promising that it would take place in the “least restrictive environment.” The law did not immediately result in integrated classrooms, but it placed the burden on advocates of segregation to show that disabled children, including children with autism, could not be appropriately educated in regular classrooms alongside nondisabled students.

Wolf Wofensberger in 1964, when he was on the faculty of the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute (courtesy of the Wolf Wolfensberger Collection, Special Collections Department, McGoogan Library of Medicine, UNMC)

Wolf Wolfensbeger was the foremost advocate of normalization in the United States. He wanted similar opportunities to be provided to developmentally disabled individuals (adults as well as children) in areas ranging from education and housing to work and recreation. He expected that the result would be similar behaviors, routines, and outcomes. Wolfensberger wrote about normalization at great length, but he also defined it briefly: “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 a single word, normalization summarized a host of policies and practices designed to thwart segregation and open community-based opportunities to people with developmental disabilities. It required that customary means be used to create and maintain customary patterns in their daily lives. The “norm” in normalization was statistical rather than moral. Trainings emphasized that “NORMALIZATION” DOES NOT MEAN 1. Normal 2. Good or bad, moral or immoral, 3. Being or doing like everybody else.”

Normalization aimed to orchestrate typical rather than ideal arrangements, but its appeal was idealistic. Normalization promised to improve the lives of people with developmental disabilities by making them more visible and familiar and, consequently, less frightening to people who lacked direct contact with disabled individuals. Advocates conceded that ordinary people in communities—rather than disabled individuals or their families—held the key to positive change. Normalization could only be achieved if Americans in all walks of life voluntarily welcomed people with disabilities on a basis of equality.

Many people of good will embraced normalization in theory, but extending typical life experiences to developmentally disabled persons encountered resistance in practice. To mention only one example, Americans disapproved of normalizing consensual sexual and reproductive relationships between developmentally disabled adolescents and adults, an attitude that stubbornly endured even as eugenics declined. Even fierce advocates of normalization in housing, education, and work probably shared these misgivings about normalizing marriage and cohabitation. Sexual intimacy, family-formation, and child-rearing may have been typical adult milestones, but the prospect of developmentally disabled marital partners and parents alarmed many Americans. “Advocacy of a childless married state” was, Wolf Wolfensberger suggested, as far as the American public might ever be willing to go.

Normalization reversed sigma by practical means. Changing the physical locations, daily activities, and personal affiliations of “deviant” persons would redefine them as valued individuals, according to proponents. From clothing and haircuts to the design of bathrooms and bedrooms, from a building’s geographical location, size, and staffing schema to its decor, normalization demanded that every dimension of service delivery be reconsidered. Physical integration—insuring that children attended the same schools, summer camps, and swimming pools as their non-disabled counterparts—was a necessary first step. But elevating the social status of devalued persons also meant placing them in valued settings, engaging them in valued activities, and surrounding them with valued people. Wolf Wolfensberger called this aspect of normalization “social role valorization” or SRV. “The key premise of SRV is that people’s welfare depends extensively on the social roles they occupy…. If the social roles they are seen as occupying can somehow be upgraded in the eyes of perceivers, their life conditions will usually improve, and often dramatically so.”

One obvious way to elevate the social roles of developmentally disabled individuals was to disperse a small number of them in settings where they would be far outnumbered by non-disabled counterparts, a strategy that diluted their differences and the fears that accompanied them. It followed that children with autism or mental retardation should live in families or in small, family-like residential units located in ordinary neighborhoods where normal families were in the majority. The rhythms and routines of their daily lives should be unexceptional. Since normal girls and boys mixed at schools, on playgrounds, and at parties, so should girls and boys with developmental disabilities, who would presumably be surrounded by non-disabled peers. Since normal workers earned wages, took regular vacations, and expected to gain satisfaction from friendships formed at work, developmentally disabled workers scattered among numerous workplaces should do the same.

Normalization was, by definition, antithetical to segregation. Living, learning, or working apart from other community members was not typical. The “special schools” and “sheltered workshops” that brought education and vocational training to many people with developmental disabilities were derided as failures, proof that separate could never be equal. They offered “make-work” rather than genuine opportunity and were organized along charitable lines, lacking the competitive, economic, and social incentives at play in education, business, and the labor market. The real test of normalization was whether people without disabilities would share their neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and leisure time with people formerly excluded and categorized as inferior.

Robert Perske, Executive Director of Greater Omaha Association for Retarded Children, went so far as to advocate for “the dignity of risk” in 1972. (courtesy of Martha Perske)

Social services for disabled individuals, especially children, had long prioritized safety and protection as overarching objectives. This was perfectly understandable in the case of self-harming children severely impacted by autism. The point of normalization, however, was to promote equality and the exercise of rights, and these might conflict with safety. With developmentally disabled children, minimizing risk was so habitual that they were sometimes protected from the very experiences that defined normal childhood: walking to school by themselves, deciding what they wanted to wear or when they wanted to eat, selecting their own friends and leisure activities. Presenting children and adults with opportunities for growth and social participation necessarily exposed them to danger and discomfort as well as pleasure and possibility. Allowing people with developmental disabilities to make choices meant they would experience the hazards of freedom and the uncertainties that permeated normal life.

By the 1970s, at least a few advocates of normalization were discussing “the dignity of risk.” Why shouldn’t children and adults with developmental disabilities navigate solo on public transportation, travel away from home for the weekend, or even operate factory machinery? Didn’t normalization stand for the expectation that disabled individuals conduct themselves appropriately and protect themselves from harm?

During the past several decades, self-determination and consumer consciousness have spread in disability rights movements and advocates have demanded stronger voices and formal representation in the decisions governing their own lives. These are legacies of normalization. Terms like “self-advocacy” are common in organizations of adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum, especially those diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. But normalization during the 1960s and 1970s signaled assimilation. Advocates measured progress by the degree to which individuals with developmental disabilities fit in and were accepted by the normal people around them. In recent years, activists have embraced respect for difference—even when that means sticking out—and have expressed greater skepticism about encouraging typical behaviors and roles. Today’s neurodiversity movement is indebted to normalization while also diverging from some of its basic premises and goals.

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