Hurry up lighting those candles

Who said Aaron was slow?

Build a dream and the dream will build you. R. Schuller.

What is Normalization?

In 1981 when Aaron was 6 years old, my friend Debbie Wetzel and I drove to Louisville, KY to hear Wolf Wolfensberger give a presentation on “Normalization” or “Social Role Valorization” as he renamed it.

Like many parents before us, this philosophy changed our whole way of looking at our children and their futures.

As Debbie said about her daughter, “Jenni is not going to lead her life wrapped up in cotton and stuck on a shelf. She is going to have as normal a life as possible.”

On the ride home we also talked about what this new way of thinking was going to mean for us as mothers and advocates. We knew our lives were forever changed. The segregated services that were currently our only options were no longer acceptable. We would no longer allow our young children to get on segregated busses taking them an hour-and-a-half across town to segregated schools and handicap-only recreation programs.

When I got home I outlined the following plans that were ambitious and I knew (based on what we were currently fighting with our school district) maybe impossible to achieve.

The dream plans were based on what I had just learned about normalization and compared my dreams for Aaron, age 6, my son with the label of autism and developmental disabilities and Tommy, age 4, with the label of typicalness.

The concept of building community and normalized environments set the course of my life.

In part 2 and 3, I will be showing you how this 1981 dream evolved. Remember the language is from 1981 when we talked with words like retarded and group homes. This will evolve too.

1981 Dream Plan for Aaron

Aaron will be educated in a public school with his non-handicapped brother and neighbors. He will have a functional curriculum (see related post) which looks at his needs in his life spaces (vocational, leisure/recreation, domestic, general community functioning). His out-of-school activities will evolve around his family and his own friends, interests and talents. He will be in age-appropriate settings: elementary school ages 5-10; Jr. High ages 11-13, Sr. High ages 14-21, job in the community 21+. He will begin vocational training now, at age 6, so he will be able to perform the job. (If he isn’t able to be a dishwasher, then he can be a dishwasher’s helper, etc… there is some job he will be able to do with success.) At the appropriate time, Aaron will move to a group home to live with others his age. Though dependent in many ways, Aaron will have self-esteem and confidence in the things he does and be a contributor to his family, his extended family, and society.

1981 Dream Plan for Tommy

Tommy will be educated in a public school with his handicapped brother and neighbors. He will have a functional curriculum which looks at the needs in his life spaces, (academic, vocational, leisure/recreation, domestic, general community functioning). His out-of-school activities will evolve around his family, his own friends, interests, and talents. He will be in age-appropriate settings. He will make a career choice and pursue training (vocational, university, apprentice…). At a time he decides is appropriate, Tommy will move to his own home, probably marry and begin his own family. He will have self-esteem and confidence in the things he does and be a contributor to his family, his extended family and society.

Normalization means…

The principle of Normalization originated in Scandinavia by Bank-Mikkelsen who began to compare his own life with the lives of residents in institutions for people who were then called “idiots, morons and imbeciles.” (Today we would say they have “intellectual disabilities” see related post on Rosa’s Law.)

Bengt Nirje a leader in the Swedish parent movement expressed it best:

Normalization means…

a normal rhythm of the day.

You get out of bed in the morning, even if you are profoundly retarded and physically handicapped;
You get dressed and leave the house for school or work, you don’t stay home;
In the morning you anticipate events, in the evening you think back on what you have accomplished;
The day is not a monotonous 24 hours with every minute endless.

You eat at normal times of the day and in a normal fashion;
Not just with a spoon, unless you are an infant;
Not in bed, but at a table;
Not early in the afternoon for the convenience of the staff.

Normalization means…

a normal rhythm of the week.

You live in one place, go to work in another, and participate in leisure activities in yet another.
You anticipate leisure activities on weekends, and look foward to getting back to school or work on Monday.

Normalization means…

a normal rhythm of the year.

A vacation to break the routine of the year.
Seasonal changes bring with them a variety of types of food, work, cultural events, sports, leisure activities.
Just think…we thrive on these seasonal changes.

Normalization means…

normal developmental experiences of the life cycle.

In childhood children, but not adults, go to summer camps.
In adolescence, one is intersted in grooming, hairstyles, music, boyfriends and girlfriends.
In adulthood, life is filled with work and responsibilities.
In old age, one has memories to look back on, and can enjoy the wisdom of experience.

Normalization means…

having a range of choices, wishes, desires respected and considered.

Adults have the freedom to decide where they would like to live, what kind of job they would like to have and can best perform.
Whether they would prefer to go bowling with a group, instead of staying home to watch television.

Normalization means…

living in a world made of two sexes.

Children and adults both develop relationships with members of the opporite sex.
Teenagers become interested in having boyfriends and girlfriends.
And adults may fall in love, and decide to marry.

Normalization means…

the right to normal economic standards.

All of us have basic financial privileges and responsibilities;
Are able to take advantage of compensatory economic security means, such as child allowances, old age pensions, and minimum wage regulations.
We should have money to decide how to spend, on personal luxuries or necessities.

Normalization means…

living in normal housing in a normal neighborhood.

Not in a large facility with 20, 50, or 100 other people because you are retarded;
And not isolated from the rest of the community.
Normal locations and normal size homes will give residents better opportunities for successful integation with their communities.

W. Wolfensberger; B. Nirje; S. Olshansky; R. Perske; and P. Roos, The Principle of Normalization in Human Services (Toronto: National Institute on Mental Retardation, 1972).

Recently Anne McDonald died, her story Annie Coming Out told of what it was like to live in an institution–not normal environments–where you were only seen as a group, never an individual (see related story).

If you are interested in more information about the history of people with disabilities, institutional settings and/or the parent movement check out Parallels in Time I (click here) and II (click here.)


Have you ever gone to a lecture or workshop and come out a different person? Do you agree with the principle of normalization? Can a person with and without a disability both lead normal lives?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All my best,