The Issue Behind Disability Service Agencies

This week, I became familiar with a prevalent theory backing many agencies for people with disabilities: The Social Role Valorisation theory. Social Varlorisation, previously known as Normalisation, is a concept originating from the 1970s, by W. Woldensberger, a doctor and “Mental Retardation Research Specialist” at the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute until 1971. His theory states that people with disabilities are invalidated by society, and hence isolated and unable to participate in typical activities and life experiences. His writings go on to say that this invalidation/isolation problem is solved by throwing a non-disabled person into the mix and having them introduce the person with the disability to an equality-based, healthy friendship, and hopefully doing what they can to integrate the disabled person into the community.

“In fact, SRV is primarily a response to the historically universal phenomenon of social devaluation, and especially societal devaluation.”

This idea, though originally only meant to apply to people with intellectual disabilities, has now become a well-understood idea in our culture and in many places that serve people with all or any disabilities. In fact, it is part-in-parcel of the agency that I am currently doing my student placement for, Citizen Advocacy Ottawa, an organization that services people with all types of disabilities. Sadly, I have a couple of issues with this theory, and will discuss them below.

Valid+Invalid=truelove

Remember as a little kid when you watched The Secret Garden and cringed without knowing why as they called the kid in the wheelchair an invalid? Ok, so maybe I’m alone in that experience, but beside the language being outdated, so too is the concept of disabled people needing ablebodied or non-disabled people to validate their existence.

I think part of the reason the argument that those valued by society are needed to integrate those invalued by society has maintained so much momentum is because, in a lot of ways, people with disabilities do benefit from the help of non-disabled folks. An example of this occurs in my own life every time I drop something and stare at it sadly until some kind walkie comes and picks it up for me. It also happens when a worker/friend/parent helps a person with autism maintain their schedule to avoid feelings of chaos. The truth is, people without disabilities very much can and do help, but it’s inaccurate to say that non-disabled individuals help people with disabilities moreso than PwD, because of their “valued status”.

I actually have a ton to say on this, but in the interest of your attention span, let me keep is short (ish) and add some structure. First, I”d like to point out that in my own personal life, having and knowing people that were also disabled enriched my life like, 1000%. I didn’t have to prove myself in these friendships, generally. I felt as if I was understood, seen, and liked, just for being. I didn’t have to do the whole, “I’m disabled, but I’m still great in these following ways,” routine. Most (and there’s always a couple ‘bad eggs’ that remind us how stupid (and off) generalizations truly are) people with visible disabilities have made me feel like a full-human, and helped me understand myself by relating with me in a way that non disabled individuals simply cannot.

So, to say that a non-disabled person is needed as part of the formula to overcome isolation and achieve integration is false according to my personal experience. Another reason I take issue with the idea that “invalids” need “valids” to be included is that typically, this is not how overcoming oppression happens. Which brings me to point two:

Race Comparison: 

I like to compare the struggles of other (more progressive) oppressed groups as an attempt at making my point poignant . Keeping with this theme,  let’s imagine that black people are the “invalids” in this formula. These people are so stigmatized, and struggle with socialization as a result of isolation and discrimination from white people. Then one day, some “nice” white person with a soul decides, “hey, blacks deserve friends too.” Said Whitey also happens to be a starter of social change, and shouts out to all his white friends that black people are actually pretty cool, and writes a Normalisation theory stating that white people need to help the black integrate. And then a bunch of fun stuff happens, white and black people start liking each other, breaking bread together, and putting their genitals together and such. And things seem ok, black people are just so grateful for all those white people willing to procreate with them, what would they have done without those white people?

In case my point is lost in bitter, know that I’m saying black people shouldn’t thank white people, as whites have everything to do with their isolation in the first place.  Furthering that, and this weird example, it is important to notice that while some progressive white people probably helped with overcoming the original barriers to black people’s oppression, black people eventually got rights all on their own, and they didn’t shout out to white people for letting them do so. This leads to my third point:

Enforcing the Binary/Stereotyping

By insisting that the isolation brought on by disability (and it’s stigmitization) is lessened through the help of a valued society member, it’s enforcing the validity of the perceived power imbalance. In doing this, were actually telling those around us, “Oh, you’re uncomfortable around this  disabled person? It’s ok, I can be around them, so you can too.” This is the whole concept behind “Normalization”–making it so that disability doesn’t scare society, when in reality, people can only get over their fear of disability by interacting with a disabled person directly. Going back to my horrible race example, no white person ever answers the question of “Are you racist?” with “No, I saw a non-white drinking coffee with a white once and was totally ok with it.”The idea that an able bodied person is what helps a person integrate tells an onlooker indirectly, that their fear is natural, which is the opposite of overcoming stigma and social barriers.

My whole point is that the theory of social role valorisation, while it has good intent, was made IN THE 70S (My grandma was like 20), and has incredibly oppressive implications. If you want disabled people to have rights, let them grab them themselves. You could even, like, hire them as a social worker or something.

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3 Comments

  1. Hi Kristen

    I am one from the same generation as your grandmother and it was in ’72 that I became disabled. I can tell you that I agree with you on all points. I had to learn all of what you state here the hard way of course, but by the early ’80s I was beginning to feel a little confidence in myself and my abilities.

    However, it wasn’t until recently that I realized that I wasn’t and am not in a minority. This could be because of my ever increasing age along with the rest of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. There are so many who are disabled in some way or form these days. I’m just one of the multitudes.

    True, there are still a few non-disabled who think I’m not quite as much as they are as a person, and they do make life unfairly difficult. But hasn’t life been this way for most no matter how far you go back in history? The struggles are just life happening.

    • Hi Glynis,
      Maybe I’m too hopeful, but it saddens me that, like you said “life happens”, and it’s difficult as is in the physical sense, and then you have entire organizations that see us as never fully capable.
      It sounds like you have reached a level of acceptance when it comes to this issue however, and in a way I admire that.

  2. It’s a great idea. And I have to say, I’d never (and this, from a writer, is SHAMEFUL) made the connection between the disabled term ‘invalid’ and the value term ‘invalid’. Ever. And now I’m quite appalled.

    I’d LOVE it if disabled people started more uprisings. My best-guy-friend’s sister is big into that kind of thing. She does a LOT. And she works (as I recall) for a charity which is supportive of disabled people, BY disabled people. She’s also an actress. She’s a lovely, wonderful, activist.

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