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Wolf Wolfensberger - A Tribute

Author: Nan Carle

With great honour and respect I pay tribute to the life and work of Wolf Wolfensberger. Simply put, we are a better people because of his presence amongst us.

Dr Wolfensberger was demanding and rigorous in his expectations that we demonstrate excellence in providing services of quality – as experienced by the people using the services. He profoundly questioned our conscious and unconscious assumptions about how we lived and worked in relationship to each other – those of us with long term needs and those without.

As educators, social workers, psychologists and others paid to serve, he challenged whether we over-professionalised our time and talents as more knowledgeable and more important than the family and friends of people with long term needs – thereby leaving them more isolated and on the margins of society.

As policy makers he questioned whether we learned from dysfunctional service systems of the past or did we recreate smaller, prettier versions of the same dysfunctions?

As friends did we expect to be paid to advocate and be in relationship with those amongst us that use services or did we seek equitable and long-term relationships?

As politicians did we serve the real needs of people with long term needs or did we serve the needs and interests of special interest groups?

Moral Outrage

Through his teaching and writing, Dr Wolfensberger gave us license to express moral outrage at what happens to people who use and depend on our service systems. He also gave us the tools to challenge and change our systems of care.

His writings about Normalisation, Social Role Valorisation and Citizen Advocacy, accompanied by the evaluation methodologies embraced in Program Analysis of Service Systems (PASS) and Program Analysis of Service Systems Implementation of Normalisation Goals (PASSING), gave us a way to identify and discuss fundamental aspects of a quality service. Those conversations changed the hearts, minds and actions of many.

Although the concepts embedded in PASS and PASSING were articulated decades ago, they are as relevant and important today as they were then.

Below are just a few of Dr Wolfensberger’s messages:

Conservatism Corollary:

The more significant and complex a person’s needs, the more important it is to add value to that person or group.To avoid diminishment and devaluation, services must ‘bend over backwards’ to both enhance a person’s image and his or her competencies.

Model Coherency:

What is the overall impact of a service? Are the right staff, doing the right things with the right people in the right way and consistently so? This requires us to take a thorough look at the needs and experiences of people using services. What do we do that really counts?

Intensity of Relevant Programming:

Is there a strong commitment to move a person along a developmental continuum? Are we employing all of our knowledge, skills and talents to ensure that a programme is relevant and intense enough to make a real difference in meeting people’s needs?

How do we make sure we are not just a ‘minding’ service? If we really used our knowledge and skills – how would we support people to spend their days?

Social Overprotection:

We are asked to challenge our expectations about people with long term needs to see if we are limiting human potential and being‘overprotective’. In this vein social overprotection is synonymous with dehumanising practices. This is not meant to penalise genuinely needed social controls. We are, however, asked to observe how we consciously or unconsciously limit people’s social/sexual identities in the name of ‘risk assessments’, medications or relationship avoidance.

Congregation Assimilation Potential:

Numbers matter. How can we createthe probability that people are welcomed into the community at large – in our neighbourhoods, at work or in our public settings? Who else is in the neighbourhood? Do we continue to create ghettos of people using services who need to go ‘out into the community’ because we have rebuilt institutions?

Difficult Times

We live in difficult times. As we move deeper into an economic downturn how do we ensure that we do not move back into institutional responses to meeting people needs? In one of Dr Wolfensberger’s last papers (April 2010), How to Comport Ourselves in an Era of Shrinking Resources, he recommended that we create an on going think-tank or series of national meetings that include ‘wise participants not just organisational representatives’
to evolve policies and strategies to present as needed. He offered many challenges with four principles for navigating during economic downturn:

(i) Work with solidarity, interconnectedness and communitarianism in contrast to radical individualism.

(ii) Seek just and equitable support systems. Do not let governments pit one advocacy group against another.

(iii) Solve problems at local levels and at the most direct level of service. Many of our good ideas have become bureaucratic and no longer effective – for example, individual planning and case management should be challenged and reconsideredfor cost containment and positive value.

(iv) Be realistic. Petitions, demonstrations, etc, may save a particular service but do not contribute to cost containment.

What really matters? At the end of his paper, Dr Wolfensberger asked of us:

Be imaginative, less fearful and think ahead. Keep the welfare of people with impairments uppermost.

We would do well to live up to his last request. Dr Wolfensberger continued to show us a mirror of our humanity as reflected in our approach to serving people with long term needs. He more often than not made us uncomfortable. Such was his gift – his job in our midst. He was the definitive agent of change.


This article was first published in Community Living.

Wolf Wolfensberger - A Tribute © Nan Carle 2011.

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