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Social Role Valorisation Theory as discourse: 

bio-medical transgression or recuperation?*

Fiona A Campbell

Doctoral Candidate, School of Humanities, Queensland University of Technology, PO Box 245 Redcliffe, Queensland, 4020, Australia.


© Fiona A Campbell - Work in Progress - Not for Citation without permission.

I wish to congratulate you for your courage in publishing Michael Bleasdale’s critique of [“SRV”].  For too long Wolf Wolfensberger’s messianic treatise on “normalization”, and more recently “SRV”, has gone unchallenged in the Australian scene..

(Parmenter 1994: 5)

One of the central contradictions of normalisation [“SRV”] is that while it purports to re-value people with disabilities, it is rooted in a hostility to and denial of “differentness”.

  (Szivos 1992:126)

… having given such a negative meaning to abnormality - the non-disabled world assumes that we wish to be normal, or to be treated as if we were.  From this follows the view that it is progressive and liberating to ignore our differences because these differences have such negative meanings for non-disabled people.

(Morris 1991: 17)


The arrival of Social Role Valorisation Theory (hereafter referred to as “SRV”) into the Australian “disability” body politic in the early 1980’s represented, at least at a public level, a new paradigm of “disability” talk. To use Foucauldian language, “SRV” is best described as a disciplinary technique, a form of “biopower” concerned with the regulation, manipulation and transformation of the unruly bodies of people with disabilities. The “SRV” apparatus is a maze of complex mechanisms concerned with guiding principles of human service delivery, both at operational and “client” based levels. It is also engaged as an evaluation tool. As such the introduction of “SRV” has not only been instrumental in the development of new methods for the “management” of disability, the very discourse of “SRV” has effected the constitution of the “disablised body”[i] within social policy and legislative reforms. Contrasted with the unenlightened era of the “old” bio-medical paradigm, “SRV” is presented as a new “liberating” paradigm offering new hope and valued lives for the “suffering” individual.

Using discourse analysis, in this paper I will put forward three propositions about “SRV”.  Firstly, I will show that it is questionable whether “SRV”, represents a departure from the bio-medical discourse of “disability” (as suggested by its exponents). Instead, I will argue “SRV” can be understood as a recuperative strategy which extends the tentacles of bio-medical disciplinary practices, appearing at the very moment  medical dominance has waned and undergone contestation. Secondly, it is my argument that “SRV” is a technique that coerces a particular form of human self - the sovereign individual of liberalism who is rampantly autonomous, competent and rational. Finally, I argue that “SRV” can be seen as an incitement to hetero-normativity. 

This paper  is divided into four parts. First, I analyse the history, diversity and application of “SRV”. Next, I expose “SRV’s” heteronormative compulsion. Then, I turn to a critical reading of “SRV”.  This includes an exposé of “SRV’s” Parsonian structural-functionalist roots as well as its fundamentalist, “New Right” standpoint.  Finally, I explore, albeit briefly, the legislative impacts of the hegemony of “SRV”.  Unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore in detail the way “disability” is put into law and understandings of the welfare state.

History and Diversity

The precursor to  Social Role Valorization Theory in the disability field was known as the Normalization Principle.[ii]  Developed by Neils Bank-Mikkelsen (1980) of Denmark and Bengt Nirje of Sweden in 1969, normalization was essentially a tool and mechanism to examine the lives of people prescribed as having an “intellectual disability”. Nirje in 1969 defined normalization as

making available to all mentally retarded people [sic] patterns of life and conditions of everyday living which are as close as possible to the regular circumstances and ways of life of society.

(Perrin and Nirje 1985:69)

Implicit within this definition is the presupposition that the “social body” should be inclusive and “integrate” people with disabilities. A formulation utterly consistent with liberal rights theory. Writing fourteen years later, Nirje is explicit about the tradition within which the normalization principle stands.  Trained in philosophy and law, Nirje wished to extend the purview of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations in 1945, by enshrining notions of equality and humans rights into an “ethical values” theory that would compliment the law in bringing about change (Nirje 1985) .

The implementation of normalization theory takes “culture” as its starting point. Nirje’s ideas about “culture” were influenced by American anthropologist Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887 - 1948), especially her influential 1934 work Patterns of Culture . So, for Nirje (1985:66)   normalization meant following the “normal rhythm of the day, week, year” and the “normal development of the life cycle” making up the “normal” conditions of life.  The ability of an individual to engage in the “normal” conditions of life,  Nirje contends is determined by the type and severity of disability inherent in the individual. 

Whilst examples of  “normal rhythms” are defined in Nirje’s work, “culture” is presented as an organic and axiomatic unity (Chappell 1992:41) , and as such  remained unproblematised and universalised.  It would appear that the concept of “normal rhythms” is based on what might be called “benchmark” assumptions concerning the life of an elusive “normal” member of the community (Nirje 1980) . Such a citizen expresses the virtues of masculinity, rationality, autonomy, activity and detachment.

Unlike Wolfensberger’s understanding of normalisation which will be discussed later in the chapter; “integration” for Nirje is predicated on a fundamental equality and integrity of person, “meaning to be yourself among others - to be able and be allowed to be yourself among others” (Nirje 1985:67) .  Indeed, the normalisation principle is not meant to be prescriptive, yet Nirje’s own work appears to be profoundly culturally - bound and hetero-sexed. In “The Normalization Principle” (1976), section titled “Living in a Heterosexual World”, Nirje states:

Normalization also means living in a heterosexual world … handicapped [sic] people sometimes suffer a senseless loneliness and it may be better for them to be married like anyone else.

(Nirje 1980:43 ~ emphasis added)


It could be said that Nirje’s observations were a step on the way to recognising the hetero-sexed nature of the “disablised” body, but let us not be too generous!  Aside from the paternalistic nature of his remarks, Nirje was thoroughly hegemonised about matters of relationality, let alone the changing and problematic concept of “family”. In fairness to Nirje, the normalization principle does advocate the right to make choices and the right to self-determination.  Writing nine years later, in the midst of contestation around the “real meaning” of normalization, Nirje errs on the side of “choice” and diversity, when he says: 

Just as (within certain limits which vary from society to society) a “normal” individual may engage in popular non-conformist or even “deviant” behaviours, the normalization principle implies that the same right also should apply to … handicapped  [sic] people.

  (Perrin and Nirje 1985:71)


This position, we shall see in the following section, is in sharp conflict with the views of  Wolfensberger who has become the dominant “voice” in the debate.

In 1972 United States based Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger developed his own version of the normalization principle “into a guiding principle for the design and conduct of virtually any kind of service” (Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983:23) .  The theoretical congruence between Nirje’s and Bank-Mikkelson’s concept of normalisation and the Wolfensberger approach is questionable. Though influenced by Scandinavian developments, Wolfensberger argues that he “elaborated, universalized, refined and systematized” (1980:74; Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983:23) the principle as originally conceived by Nirje. Yet a significant, though subtle, epistemological and methodological shift has occurred. Nirje’s liberal rights-based “values theory”, normalisation became transmogrified into Social Role Valorization theory “SRV” and has according to Wolfensberger become a universalised, higher order, “scientific” meta-theory of devaluation (Wolfensberger 1995:367) .

Wolfensberger defined “SRV” as encompassing “as much as possible, the use of culturally valued means in order to enable, establish and/or maintain valued social roles for people” (Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983:23 ~ emphasis added) .  “SRV” relies on two strategies to facilitate the movement of “devalued” people into becoming “valued” members of  “society”. The first strategy is to reduce stigmata; and the second, is to change perceptions of community members through the re-valuing of “devalued” people.  The methods utilised to activate such strategies are incorporated into service provision goals focused upon the enhancement of a “devalued” person’s social image and competencies.  Stanley Cohen (1985: 183 - 191) in the context of criminology, but equally applicable here, described the “cognitive passion” for testing (judging normalisation) by “professionals” and bureaucrats.  The obsession in “SRV” to produce “competency enhancements” that conform with a fictitious “… typical citizen [who] … has a culturally normative degree of personal autonomy and choice” (Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983: 28) masks the masculinist basis of the liberal subject of western modernity, erasing alternative ways of living human subjectivity.  The normalising “gaze” of “experts” is extended to the testing and ranking of “human service” agencies.

With Susan Thomas, Wolfensberger developed PASSING (Program Analysis of Service Systems’ Implementation of Normalization Goals), a service provision evaluation tool which is “a device for the objective quantification of the quality of a wide range of human service programs … and even entire service systems” (Wolfensberger and Thomas 1980:28) . Each service provider engages in a process of self - production - surveillance; a ritual of “truth - making” in order to map - construct - conform to “SRV’s” imperative.[iii] The Seven Core Themes[iv] of  “SRV” constitutes the framework of “SRV”-in-action and an outline follows:

·       the role and importance of (un)consciousness in human services;

·       the relevance of role expectancy and role circularity to deviancy-making and deviancy-unmaking;  

·       the conservatism corollary of normalisation;

·       The developmental model, inclusive of competency enhancement;

·       the power of imitation;

·       the dynamics and relevance of social imagery; and

·       the importance of personal social integration and valued social participation;

(Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983:23 - 29)


A brief perusal of the seven themes suggests the centrality of values and cultural valuation in the effective implementation of “SRV”. Although recognising that subordination, or in Wolfensberger’s language “devaluation”, is culturally relative, Wolfensberger (1995:366) insists that “SRV’s” object is twofold, namely, to “capitali[ze] upon cultural values and the need to change at least some of them”. The question of “who” decides, in the event of a value conflict, which values prevail, is not particularly addressed.  It is assumed that the human “community” is a social system structured around a homogenous or shared (or at least consensual) value base.  The “social” is a biological organism, its capillaries made up of norms and values.

“SRV” appears to uncritically reinforce such a construction of social ordering by its emphasis on the reduction of “devaluation” via the prevention of “differentness” or stigmata that may result in “devaluation” or marginalisation from the mainstream.  The following examples support this conclusion:

Since deviancy is , by definition, in the eyes of the beholder, it is only realistic to attend not only to the limitations in a person’s repertoire of potential behavior but attend as much as or even more to those characteristics and behaviors which mark a person as deviant  in the sight of others.  For instance, wearing a hearing aid may be a greater obstacle to finding and keeping a job than being hard of hearing.

(Wolfensberger 1972: 28 ~ emphasis added )


The “shame” of “disability” is further highlighted by the need to avoid body sculpturing that as Wolfensberger & Thomas (1983: 37) put it “unnecessarily draws attention to devalued physical characteristics, such as a close-cropped brush haircut on a man whose head and ears are malformed…”.  Such strategies, I argue do violence to the integrity and corporeality of the person with a “disability” and sends mixed messages about the repugnance - unthinkability - intolerability of “disablised” bodies.

The rest of this section will concentrate on the “conservatism corollary”, one of the “seven core themes”.  According to Wolfensberger, the “conservatism corollary” posits that:

the greater the number, severity, and/or variety of deviances or stigmata of an individual person, or the greater number of deviant/stigmatized persons there are in a group, the more impactful it is to: (a) reduce one or few of the individual stigmata within the group, (b) reduce the proportion or number of deviant people in the group, or (c] balance (compensate for) the stigmata or deviancies by the presence, or addition, of positively valued manifestations.                                                                   

(Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983: 26)


Wolfensberger clarified the meaning of promoting positively-valued manifestations within the “conservatism corollary” by arguing that it was preferable to choose the more positive (or conservative) option.  In other words, the corollary requires that human service workers overcompensate to reduce or minimise any “devaluing characteristics”.

The reality of the corollary is that it does nothing to interrogate and challenge hegemonic ideas that exclude, separate and subordinate people with disabilities. Instead, the tenets of the corollary actively promote separation between and within groups of so-called “stigmatised” peoples.[v]

When a significant proportion of people within a distinct or compact group have one or more such oddities, then the whole group including non-stigmatized members, is apt to be negatively stereotyped.

  (Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983:26 ~ emphasis added)


Such so-called “oddities” include “retardation”, a “speech impediment”, an “odd” hairstyle and mannerisms and the wearing of “odd” clothing. The “normalised” body in contrast is one that presents as “clean, neat, fashionable, and flattering grooming and dress” (Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983: 37) .  The tenets of the “conservatism corollary” are in sharp conflict with Nirje’s understanding of the normalisation principle that advocates the right to make “choices”, even if those “choices”, are as he puts it unpopular.  But where does the Enlightenment notion of the individual as a free and knowing subject fit? According to John Armstrong, a senior “SRV” trainer, “freedoms are bought at the price of compliance, a cooperation with the “rules” of society”.  He believes that the consequences

will not be changed by thrusting vulnerable people into circumstances where it is they, and not us, who receive the onslaught of societies [sic] retribution when they innocently and unintentionally act upon our advice - or it’s lack - and unwittingly violate some societal principle.

(Armstrong 1997 ~ emphasis added)


Armstrong’s interpretation of “freedom” at the hands of “SRV” erases the agency and capacity for subordinated peoples to negotiate their/our own subjectivities. The epistemic and physical violence of “SRV” is best illustrated in Wolfensberger’s advice for dealing with “aberrant” and unruly flesh:

Cosmetic surgery can often eliminate or reduce a stigmata, and can be as effective in enhancing a person’s acceptability as teaching adaptive skills, changing his [sic] conduct or working on his feelings.

(Wolfensberger 1972: 104)


We are denied a deliberative capacity to adopt a resistive positionality. Such a statement reveals the ableist hegemonic standpoint of Armstrong as well as the “benchmark” speaking position of “SRV”.

Compulsory Hetero-normativity or,  we may be “disabled” but we can still be “real” men and women!

The normalising gaze of “SRV” comes into force in the operation of the “conservatism corollary”, a corrective technique that simultaneously marks out boundaries of permissibility for bodies inscribed as “woman”, “man”, “queer”, “respectable” and so on.  The policing of sexed boundaries is revealed in a reading of the PASSING Manual’s narrative on the ‘Promotion of Client Socio-Sexual Identity’, rating 225 (Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983) . A pursuit of “valued sex roles” translates into a disciplinary technique that figures hetero-normativity as self-evidently preferable and “natural”: “Adults may choose either marriage and parenthood, or singlehood” raters are advised (1983) .  Staff in facilities act as mentors for “appropriate” sex role development (461 - 463).

In order to proffer a reduction in stigmata and overcompensate for “devaluation”, the corollary requires that the “disablised subject” adopt ableist and heteronormative postures.  The body marked for “transformation” and “taming”, is required to suspend its life-flow and our/its very expressiveness, by engaging disciplinary “tactics”. For in the end, “where clients are devalued, they should be supported in more conservative socio-sexual role developments” (463).


To ensure that the borders of sexed bodies remain fixed, Wolfensberger recuperates the naturalised body in order to ensure that there is no “matter out of place” (Douglas 1984) , rendering the unruly “disablised” body bounded and potentially knowable:

… rather than those [bodies] which may be avant-garde or common, but only marginally valued at best … A delicate balance [must be struck] between acknowledging culturally normative and prevalent sex role stereotypes on the one hand, whilst simultaneously try to avoid sexism … raters are advised to be somewhat conservative if an aggressive anti-sexist measure would result in the projection of a deviancy image upon the client.

(Wolfensberger and Thomas 1983: 468 ~ emphasis added)


In other words, such bodily abjection, necessitates that:

… the issue of sex role stereotypes … becomes especially troublesome when societally devalued people are at stake …the image of already devalued people should not be further endangered by associating such persons  with images and activities which are marginal in the larger culture (462).


The dissolving of permissible boundaries may subvert and indeed contaminate the “correct” ordering of “nature” which is already under siege.  Adherence to a heteronormative conception of reproduction within the context of marriage would reduce the moral complexities characteristic of late modernity (Wolfensberger 1994: 406) .  “SRV”  then posits certainty of sexed roles:

…it would probably be harmful to the image of a mentally retarded [sic] man for him to spend his work day at tasks which have historically been thought of as ‘women’s work’, or to be encouraged to occasionally wear a skirt because women often wear slacks. [In other words], … devalued people should not be at the vanguard of breaking down sex role barriers. (462)


Through a combination of sarcasm and snide remarks, Wolfensberger has discursively re-packaged the equal opportunity (gender neutrality) goals of liberal feminism in a way that makes these aspirations only available to the elite “valued” few and unrealistic, if not counterproductive to “integration” of “devalued” people.

The “sexed troubles”[vi] of Wolfensberger permeate “SRV” and it is for this reason that feminists and others “othered” need to continue to foreground its violence, dangerousness and intolerance.


The “Agenda

The “SRV” internet web site[vii] represents “SRV” as a strong, vibrant and coordinated international movement spanning at least seven countries. Indeed, much of the language and rhetoric used by Dr. Wolfensberger and his followers closely resembles the style typical of “far right” and fundamentalist religious cults. Individuals who transgress the “SRV” holy writ are subjected to the full force of “SRV” zeal and shunning.  Indeed Hilary Brown & Helen Smith (1992a:xvii) support this observation and note that “the commitment and fervour which it [“SRV”] can engender in individuals has led to it being likened to an evangelical movement, with associated doctrinal squabbles and schisms”.

Until recently, critical attention has focused upon “SRV’s” methodological flaws, either as a “deviancy” theory (Campbell 1984; Graycar, Dorsch et al. 1986; Brown and Smith 1992a; Bleasdale 1994a; Bleasdale 1996) and more recently, its construction of “disability” (Branson and Miller 1992; Oliver 1995; Rapley and Baldwin 1995) . Aside from Lindley and Wainwright (1992) , few references have been made to the socio-religious context of “SRV”.  This is surprising given the reference that Dr. Wolfensberger has made to Christian influences upon his own work.[viii] I believe that these religious foundations are critical to understanding the stance and direction of “SRV”.

Since the late 1980’s the language of moral coherency has crept into the work of Wolfensberger and the Training Institute of Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry, whose mission is to read “… “the sign of the times” and interpret their meaning for human services” (Wolfensberger 1990) .[ix]  According to  Lindley and Wainwright  (1992:31) , “SRV” trainees are asked to “examine the negative dynamics of a society which opposes rational and moral goals and to explore the difficulties which await those who pursue such goals”. Much of the language of the Institute is has a doomsday flavour[x] and is obsessed with the destruction of civility, and with “evil” and “deathmaking”.  “Deathmaking”, a central concept in  Wolfensberger’s thought is defined as “any action or pattern of actions that brings about or hastens the death of any person or group” (Wolfensberger, quoted in Lindley and Wainwright 1992:31) .[xi]  The outline of a four day workshop states that the curriculum will cover issues that require urgent attention:[xii]

This event is intended for people who (a) perceive there is gathering momentum in the world that works towards “deathmaking”; (b) are uncomfortable with a pick-&-choose approach that endorses some “deathmakings” in the world but objects to others; and [c) would like to work towards a more coherent position on the sanctity of life.

(Social Role Valorisation Page 1998)


It is not surprising then, to discover an increasing convergence between the millenarianist concerns of the Christian far right in the US and the mission of the Institute, headed  by Dr. Wolfensberger.[xiii] The Grace Baptist Church, who describe themselves as “a fundamental, independent … Church”, in their Cutting Edge, a weekly radio show, cry out that “our society is deteriorating, and Bible believing Christians are ill-prepared to face that deterioration”.  (Cutting Edge Ministries 1996) .  Wolfensberger, somewhat conjointly, is also concerned. He says

 we are witnessing the collapse of civilization …  a rejection of the Graeco-Judeo-Christian morality that has been the basis of Western culture, morality and polity for up to about 1600 years”.

(Wolfensberger 1994:396- 397) .  


The Cutting Edge radio transcript (1996) goes on to announce that the views of Dr. Wolfensberger who, introduced to listeners as “ … a Jewish Holocaust survivor and born-again Christian”, denounces the ushering of a “new world order” and decries inter alia the intentional killing of 200,000 people per year in the United States:

We are killing far more handicapped people per year, than the  Nazis did between 1939 - 1945 … deathmaking is normally so repugnant that, when you see one public instance of it, you can rest assured that as much as 100-fold has occurred secretly that no one will ever see it … Remember that the New World Order has a goal of forced reduction of the world’s population by two-thirds by the year 2,000.

(Cutting Edge Ministries 1996 ~ emphasis added)


Could the Grace Baptist Church’s use of Dr. Wolfensberger’s material constitute a mere appropriation of his views to support the agenda of the Christian right, in ways not intended by Wolfensberger?  Whilst there is a paucity of evidence at this point in time to support a direct connection between “SRV”, Wolfensberger and the New Christian Right,  the sentiments expressed in Dr. Wolfensberger’s recent works appear to support such a claim. Practitioners of “SRV” and Moral Coherency  workshops are called upon to take a “coherent stance against deathmaking” (Wolfensberger 1994:412) by becoming zealous advocates of “SRV”.

Let us re-cap after what may appear as a digression.  Part of the task of discourse analysis is to expose and lay bare that which appears self-evident, as inherently problematic.  Like with other new “technologies”, Australia was quick to pick up and respond to the “SRV” fervour originating from the United States. “SRV’s” adoption into the Australian polity has occurred in the absence of much critical comment.[xiv] The remaining two sections of this paper, then, will firstly survey these critical voices and secondly, indicate the influences that “SRV” has had in developments in the law and social policy.


 A Genealogy of Critical Voices

Fear is a great silencer and as such speaking can involve risk.  It was not long ago that critics of “SRV” risked “silencing”, reprisals and threats of dismissal by employers and de-funding of service provision (Graycar, Dorsch et al. 1986:27; Parmenter 1994:5) . This section maps out critical responses to social role valorisation theory from a broad spectrum of commentators. My thesis is not the first to foreground concerns about  “SRV” .  However, to my knowledge this presentation is unique in bringing together a synthesis of critiques in one text so that the reader can grasp key focal concerns.[xv]  Whilst there are differences in emphasis, the critical literature lends support to the view that  “SRV” privileges ableist normativity and maintains the racialising and sexing of the “disablised” body through disciplinary practices that assimilate and invoke separation between people with “disabilities”. In presenting my argument, I will commence with an outline of Nirje’s response to Wolfensberger’s “reformulation” of normalisation.  Next, I will identify three clusters of concern:  the methodology, practices and effects of “SRV”.

Burt Perrin and Bengt Nirje (1985) contend that “SRV” is predicated on a substantially different epistemological base from the principle of normalisation as conceived by Nirje and therefore cannot be considered as “a reformulation, refinement, or operationalization” of that principle (Perrin and Nirje 1985: 71) . The shift in the epistemological grounds of normalisation from an “ethical values theory”, based on human rights, to that of the “positivist scientism” of “SRV”, produces profoundly different effects on the way “disability” is mediated. In this respect, “SRV” can be understood as a discursive manoeuvre.  Nirje argues that “SRV” with its emphasis on conformity and the acquisition of culturally valued roles sharply contrasts with normalisation which emphasises the integrity of the person (Parmenter 1994: 5; Rapley and Baldwin 1995: 145) to make her/his choices (Brown and Smith 1992a:160) , her/his self- determination (Perrin and Nirje 1985: 71) and the importance of “an individual’s subjective experience of self” (Szivos 1992: 114) .

“SRV” promotes the pursuit of culturally valued forms of self-determination for the person with a “disability”, but, if a “preference” is in conflict with what is defined as “appropriate” or more valued, then the latter must take priority.  Perrin and Nirje’s response to such a process is damning: “this authoritarian approach, however benevolent in its intentions, represents an unwarranted abuse of the powers of the therapeutic state” (1985: 71). In summary, Perrin and Nirje argue that “SRV” is essentially an ideology that promotes “passing” in society and the ensuing minimisation of “deviancy”. The kinds of “deviancy”, I believe “SRV” has in mind, are deviations from hetero-normative corporeality and the autonomous disembodied “self” of liberalism.

The founder of structural - functionalism, Talcott Parsons developed a universal theory of society which, “did not so much justify capitalism (although it often did) as offer an explanation and understanding of its difficulties without condemning it” (Craib 1995: 379) .  Parsons’ “systems theory”, as it became known, emphasised a system “built up around norms and values”, in which a “system of “status roles” developed … to which expectations of behaviour (and rewards and sanctions for fulfilling or not fulfilling those expectations) are attached” (382).  Wolfensberger’s transmogrification of “SRV” into a “values theory” resulted in a closer alignment  with Parsonian functionalism (Bleasdale 1996: 6) , though this is not made explicit.  In  fact, a more accurate rendering would put “SRV” as a combination of societal reaction theory and functionalism (Burton 1983: 54, 55; Chappell 1992: 39) .  Even so, Rapley and Baldwin (1995: 151) argue that ““SRV” has not drawn widely upon the theoretical extensivity of its supposed theoretical underpinnings”. A number of writers argue that functionalist role theory is outdated and inadequate to explain the marginality of people with “disabilities” (Szivos 1992: 116; Bleasdale 1994a: 17) .  Especially because of a focus upon “social problems” at the individual and/or sub-cultural level, little “thought is given to the possibility that the source of the problem lies not within the system but is the system itself” (Mullaly 1997: 124) .

The positive reception and dominance of “SRV” within “disability” discourse in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, has been due to the appearance of a “scientific” style of reasoning, an “empiricist persuasiveness” (Szivos 1992: 115) . Historically well timed, the development of “SRV” “fortuitously coincided with the zenith of the cultural hegemony of “science” as an infallible weltanschauung (Rapley and Baldwin 1995: 145) .  Even though, Wolfensberger argues that “SRV” is self-evidently valid, using positivist-empiricist criteria, “SRV”’s tautological reasoning fails for it is not amenable to refutation.

The sharpest criticisms have been reserved for the jargon of “SRV”, which according to Bleasdale and Graycar is “convoluted and elusive … designed to convey a mystique that [is] out of proportion to its meaning and context” (Graycar, Dorsch et al. 1986: 26) .  Not only does this language remove the “theory” further away “from the consumers themselves” (Bleasdale 1994a: 18-19) , but I argue that “SRV” does violence to the experience of people with “disabilities” and reifies the power of “experts”.  Furthermore, language is important as it plays a role in the discursive production of subjectivity itself. 

In this case, the discourse of “SRV”, whilst purporting to be a cutting edge paradigm of “disability”, in fact acts as a recuperative strategy involving a “repackaging” of the binarism of “normality”/”abnormality”.[xvi] The violence and subordination experienced by many people with “disabilities” is referred to as “wounds” in “SRV” training, which Bleasdale (1994a: 18 - 19) argues obscures instances of systemic exclusion and shifts the emphasis away from a “rights” focus towards a therapeutic model under the power of the expert’s “gaze”.

The notion of “devaluation” is a pivotal concept in “SRV”.  Brown and Smith (1992a: 150) point out that “devaluation” involves the exercise of power and thus should not be viewed in a passive way.  The important question of agency is left unaddressed and absent, if not erased from the discourse of “SRV”. Wolfensberger’s  framework delineates that the performance of certain sexed and cultural roles leads to “devaluation”. However, “devaluation” in this sense, I argue is misrepresented, for Wolfensberger does not discuss the way  particular attributes or forms of embodiment are related to roles. In any case, in order to have “valued cultural roles,” Gillian Dalley (1992: 101-102) points out that “there must be a fundamental re-evaluation of those categories of persons qua persons”.

I would take this analysis a step further and suggest that we need to explode the whole concept of “disability” and interrogate the constitution of the “disablised” body (Campbell 1999) .  Meanwhile, it must stated that it is the values in “society” which serve the hegemonic interests of “benchmark” men, that also deny people with “disabilities” “the opportunity to develop in the way which is best [sic] for them” (Bayley 1991: 88) . 

In looking closely at Wolfensberger’s theorising it is evident that there is an irreconcilable tension and incompatibility between the desire to value humans qua humans and “working to develop socially valued roles for them” (Bayley 1991: 89) .  Wolfensberger is clear on this point, when he says that to “value the person regardless of the person’s identity and characteristics  … is almost totally ineffective in bringing about the desired goal [of change]” (Wolfensberger, 1983, quoted in Bayley 1991: 89) .  This raises yet again the shortcomings of a Functionalist based role theory.  The “validity” of “SRV” is highly dependent on an individual who is deemed “different” and perceived as “deviant”, taking on the ascribed “devalued” role and then incorporating that role into their subjectivity (Rapley and Baldwin 1995) .  This idea appears remarkably similar to Althusser’s much contested notion of interpellation.  It is the power of the “expert” and the “severely able-bodied” individual who, according to Judith Butler

… initiate[s] the call or address by which a subject becomes socially constructed. [Interpellation can] compel fear at the same time that it offers recognition at an expense.  In the reprimand the subject not only receives recognition, but attains as well a certain order of social existence …

(Butler 1993: 121)


It is difficult to assess the relationship between the characterisation of an individual and the “roles” they perform (Rapley and Baldwin 1995: 157) .  Techniques of self-production however are multiple and complex; the individual is in a constant state of negotiating competing subjectivities that may be imposed or sought.                                                           

Critics of “SRV” argue that the theory presents an assimilationist and mono-culturalist perspective of social ordering (Campbell 1984: 96; Branson and Miller 1992: 17; Bleasdale 1994a: 21) .  Assimilation, has an insidious quality about it, for such a process involves an

acceptance into the rosters of relative privilege, [and] requires that members of formerly excluded groups adopt professional postures and suppress the expressiveness of their bodies.  Thus emerges for all who have not lost the impulses of life and expression of a new kind of distinction between public and private, in bodily behavior.

  (Young 1990: 140)


“SRV” may have the opposite effect of integration/assimilation, that is, it may produce the “exclusion of people with “disabilities” from the political process” (Bleasdale 1994a: 21) unless we/they can be subsumed into a particular human self - the sovereign autonomous individual figured in liberal rights theory.   The “independence” imperative is not only unattainable for many people with “severe disabilities”, it is also a cruel fabrication which simultaneously holds out the “promise land” whilst continuing to inscribe “disablised bodies” as “Other” (Campbell 1984: 96) . In summation Branson and Miller remark:

… the arbitrary disciplinary process of normalisation [“SRV”] has robbed us all of our difference, our society of its sensitivity to diversity and thus of  true tolerance, and our culture of its potential richness, all to serve ultimately the interests of a privileged minority.

(Branson and Miller 1992: 18)


The absence of any structural or socio-economic analysis of disablement and power in “SRV” is well documented elsewhere (Burton 1983; Chappell 1992; Gleeson 1995; Oliver 1995; Bleasdale 1996; Brown and Walmsley 1997) . It is clear that “SRV” does not “come up with the goods” to explain why in spite of significant progress in the “tolerance” of “disability”, poverty and marked subordination remain.

“SRV” advocates an explicit strategy of separation from other people with “disabilities”.  As Szivos puts it :

the “official” view, from the normalisation [“SRV”] perspective, is that integration with non-disabled people is a more important goal than integration with disabled people [sic].

(Szivos 1992: 123)


A strategy of dispersal of people with “disabilities” is predicated on the belief that we will not “stand out”, and our value and self-esteem will increase (Szivos 1992: 121) via “mixing”.  Unfortunately, the consequences of dispersal are likely to produce “internalised ableism”.[xvii]  Such a policy mitigates against people with “disabilities” developing a sense of “meaningful association” and solidarity drawing upon shared experiences and peer support (Brown and Smith 1992a: 167; Brown and Walmsley 1997: 232) to develop a resistive stance.  The question of whether it is possible or indeed desirable for people with “disabilities” to adopt a kind of oppositional sovereignty, similar to movements of people of colour, needs further consideration.

After nearly thirteen[xviii] years of “SRV” within Australian disability services, there is a strong argument to be made that, in spite of the process of deinstitutionalisation, the net of social control has widened.  Centralised institutional surveillance has been replaced by a “carceral archipelago” of “community-based” services (Cohen 1985: 42) , which appear “open and small - sized”, yet could be “restrictive and regimented internally” (Cohen 1985: 291) .  Oliver argues that it is no coincidence that normalisation was embraced at a time when a philosophical rationalisation was needed to buffer up the policy of economic monetarism [Oliver, 1995 #83: 14; see also /Graycar, 1986 #6].  Much has changed for the “lot” of people with “disabilities” since the introduction of the Commonwealth Disability Services Act 1986. However the “cosmology” remains essentially unaltered” (Branson and Miller 1992: 19) , for

… despite our lip service to consumer choice and the involvement of families in the planning processes, [we] continue to suffer from the ‘cult of professionalism’ where the trained professional, be he/she a physician, psychologist, social worker, therapist or teacher, knows what is “best” for the disabled person …

(Parmenter 1991: 3)


 Indeed, it has been argued that “SRV” needs to be exposed as a new disciplinary practice, which provides guidelines about how people with “disabilities” should understand, regulate and experience their bodies (Lupton 1997: 99) .  Within these practices, the docility of the “disablised” body is produced by the power of the “experts’ gaze”. We are taught to manage and understand our own subjectivities, through “classifying and measuring the psyche, in predicting its vicissitudes, in diagnosing the cause of its troubles and prescribing remedies” (Rose 1991: 3) . “SRV”, instead of investigating the hegemony of “experts”, has enabled the adaptation of “experts” to “community-based” and “user-friendly” options (Ministerial Review Committee of Educational Services for the Disabled 1984: 7; Chappell 1992: 40) .  The spectre of  “institutionalisation” has been transmogrified into a “softer” type of confinement - buildings being replaced by the extended control net of the “helping profession”.

At the end of the day nothing much has changed; the local knowledges of people with “disabilities” have been subjugated through nullification.  The question needs to be asked - whose interests are being served by “SRV”?  It would seem that the greater proportion of “SRV”’s supporters are professionals employed in the “disability industry”. Academics, at least in the United Kingdom, actively promoted “SRV” (Chappell 1992: 37) .  In the Australian context, key players in disability policy formation are zealous advocates of “SRV”. They have the power to shape and construct  “disability” discourse as well as expand their teaching repertoire by opening up new areas of inquiry. The hegemony of “SRV” is no more apparent than in its consummation in key Federal and State legislation.  Meanwhile, because “SRV” “connects with their [those adopting a severely ableist mentality] common sense” (Oliver 1995: 17) , the “objects” of “SRV” namely, people with a “disability”, are framed out of the debate.

 Incursions into Law


Adapting the schema developed by Wood (1995: 41) concerning ways to think about the law, I have produced, somewhat tentatively, a mapping of the construction of the “disablised” body in Australia. [Appendix 1 available from the author].

It is important to acknowledge the links between “higher order” philosophies, the construction of “disablised” subjectivities in law and the premises underpinning social policy. It is beyond the purview of this work to examine in any depth such linkages and constructions, I am however interested in sketching (albeit briefly) the incursions of “SRV” into the body politic, in particular recent Federal anti-discrimination law. 

Writing in the context of gay and lesbian law reform, Wayne Morgan has berated those activists who campaign for human rights protections within the framework of anti-discrimination law.  These “assimilationists” “cling to rights of privacy and equality, magnanimously granted by the State, and they argue that legal strategies should be directed to achieving those rights” (Morgan 1996: 119) . The power of legal discourse lies in its ability to “trade in symbols” and generate categories of legal persons and legitimate “knowledge”/competencies. The very rendering of “disability” within a legal framework marks out the boundaries of permissible inquiry into the reckoning of “disablised” subjectivities; concealing the discursive formations that entrench ableist normativity, not just within law but broader in citizenship discourse. So how useful then, is law as a mechanism for securing progressive social change?[xix]  Or is the law an instrument that entrenches ableist normatively in the form of “SRV”?  Can, indeed the law be “escaped”?

  For as Margaret Thornton reminds us the

Law can be imagined as a transparency that is placed over prevailing dominant interests so that it absorbs and reflects those interests.  The movement at the edges of the transparency provides some scope for change in the configuration of dominant interests, but not very much.

(Thornton 1997b: 3)


Such ambivalence is reflected in an article by Melinda Jones and Leanne Marks who first argue that the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA), still reinforces a biomedical definition of “disability”.  Such an interpretation

will teach the wrong lesson about disability to the wider community by failing to recognise that disability and outsider status are not inherent attributes of impairment but are social constructions”.

(Jones and Basser Marks 1998: 65)


After concluding that the Act is of “limited utility”, Jones and Marks then proceed to outline critical theorist’s concerns about the “law”:  “the idea of “normalcy” and the concept of “ability” is achieved through the silencing of others, and in what is left unsaid as in what is stated” (83).  Just at the moment when an interrogation of “disability” seems possible Jones and Marks go on to dismiss this opportunity, and recuperate the law by arguing that individuals who adopt this view “expect too much [and are ] … naive” (83).  Moving from a stance of “limited utility” on p.65, they conclude that:

the DDA has a role to play in the discursive formation of new structures of behaviour, including the regulation of subjective integrity, attitudinal shifts and cultures.

(Jones and Basser Marks 1998: 82 ~ emphasis added)


How is this possible when the very rendering of “disability” within a legal framework “limits the permissible inquiry into the nature of the construct;  [concealing the discursive formations] … that have helped to create - and then re-create - [“disability”]” (Hayman 1960: 1248) ? 

The DDA was in many ways a response to the shortcomings of the Disability Services Act 1986 that is chiefly focused on the regulation of service delivery arrangements and funding to the “disability industry”.  New legislation was also a response to campaigns for civil rights protections by people with “disabilities”.  The Australian Labour Party’s policy machine, influenced significantly by “SRV”, enacted the Disability Services Act 1986 (DSA). The legislation emphasised de-institutionalisation by enshrining “SRV” principles into its Objects (s.3) and the Act’s Principles & Objectives.[xx] At the same time the government met its social justice objectives and reduced the mounting budgetary deficit (Graycar, Dorsch et al. 1986; Parliamentary Library Service 1996) .  Services were “re-profiled”, “down-sized”, funded and occasionally de-funded according to whether they met a prescribed services outcome guidelines”,[xxi] based on material contained in PASSING training. 

Similarly at a State level the Victorian government, with a policy framework based on “SRV” since 1977,[xxii]  enacted  the Intellectually Disabled Person’s Services Act 1986 (IDPS), enshrining the ideology of “SRV” in s. 5  -  Statement of Principles.  A lone dissenting voice within the Victorian policy apparatus, was the Ministerial Review Committee in Educational Services for the Disabled [sic], who in its report to the Minister for Education specifically rejected “SRV”.  Their reasoning: the philosophy gave power to professionals and the committee recommended instead an approach to “disability” akin to the social model (Ministerial Review Committee of Educational Services for the Disabled 1984: 6 - 12) .

Unfortunately the power of legal liberalism still reigns strong. The former Federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, the late Elizabeth Hastings (1996: 4) suggested that “society” still places faith in the law to deliver change, arguing that “the law has gone a long way towards recognising the real community which includes people with a disability rather than just the imaginary community”. The DDA, she goes onto conclude “recognis[es] the real composition of the real community”. Does it really?  It is debateable whether popular understandings of citizenship can readily embrace people who are designated as corporeally Other.  Meekosha for instance, cites the exclusionary clauses in the Federal Migration Act 1958  wherein entry can be denied to persons with “disabilities” because they may be a significant drain on the public purse:

 The meaning of ‘significant’ is contentious, leaving assessment of the person and their capacities open to subjective interpretation.  Most community resources are in short supply … making exclusion  a fait accompli in most cases.

(Meekosha and Dowse 1997: 64)  


Until the nexus between “disability” and bio-medical discourse such as “SRV” is broken, the law will continue to reflect and legitimate the dominance of ableist normativity. Our task then is to continue to interrogate the “law” by “mapping the subversive voice, by telling the story of law from our points of view” (Morgan 1996: 136) .

In this paper I have attempted to loosen the grip of “SRV” within the dominant discourse on “disability” within the Australian context by providing an alternative reading of SRV.  The task of those of us with “disabilities” is to speak otherwise, in order to rescue “disablised” bodies from the vertiginous dread of the tragic. This project of writing/speaking in oppositional/transgressive ways about knowing “disability” by necessity engages courage, reflexivity and a reassessment of theoretical approaches to disablement, for the very teleological  future of “disability”  is at stake.


* This article is a revised chapter from my Bachelor of Legal Studies (Hons) thesis, School of Law & Legal Studies, La Trobe University 1998. I would like thank and acknowledge Gail Pritchard, Dr Rosemary Wearing, Denise Alexander and Dr Andrea Rhodes- Little for their comments on this paper.

[i] This term would be somewhat unfamiliar to many readers. Following Elizabeth Grosz (1994: 142) , I argue that the body can be seen as an inscriptive surface, shaped and formed by its history “ and specificity of  … existence”. The use of this term I believe is important, for as a signifier, the use of ‘disablised body’, has the capacity to bring a different ontology of ‘disability’ into existence. Finding suitable language to express such an ontology has its problems.  I am mindful that I risk reinforcing the very binarism I seek to subvert. My figuring of the body is based on a materiality that rejects Cartesian dualism and therefore I make no particular differentiation between flesh, mind or ‘giest’ (spirit).

[ii] For the purposes of clarity and to minimise confusion between Wolfensberger’s and Nirje’s concept of “normalization”, the term Social Role Valorization Theory (“SRV”) will be used to denote the “theory” and practice of the Wolfensbergerian school. Normalization emerged from the experiences of the intellectual disability field in Scandinavian countries.

[iii] This process has at times been coercive with many Commonwealth funded services being threatened with de-funding should they not conform with the Principles & Objectives of the Disability Services Act 1986 (Cth), based on “SRV”.

[iv] It is my understanding that the new “SRV” Theory workshop now has 10 themes. As of November 1997, the Australian “SRV” Group is yet to critically evaluate the additional 10 theme course.

[v] The separation is increased when the concept of “deviancy image juxtaposition” is engaged.  According to “SRV”, in situations where marginalised (read: negatively valued) people, things and symbols are likely to be transferred onto “devalued” entities or symbols they should be avoided.  Negative image transfer is reduced through association with valued social images.

[vi] My reading of the PASSING Manual’s heterosexed narrative is supported, somewhat ironically by Wolfensberger’s more recent work.  In that work, Wolfensberger argues that civilisation is collapsing.  It’s “glue”, in an advanced collapsed state include: “traditional family and home life, competent reproduction and child rearing.  … Many traditional legal  and cultural norms regarding human life, sexuality, morality …” (1994: 398) .


[viii] In 1979  he published an article on a theology of “disability” (Wolfensberger 1979) .  The following year, after claiming that his formulation of normalization squares with the central tenants of Christian theology, he refers to another work Judeo-Christian Perspectives on Human Services (1980:89) . 

[ix] Such a phrase has a distinctly theological “ring” about it.  On the 11th April 1963, His Holiness, Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), called upon Roman Catholics and Christians in general, to discern “… the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of our age, a concept and approach which in Vatican II became discerning “the sign of the times”… ” (Gremillion 1976: 12) .

[x] Indeed Bleasdale (1996:8) suggests that Wolfensberger has an “apocalyptic vision for the world”.

[xi] An extensive  nine-point definition can be found in Wolfensberger  (1994:395-396) .

[xii] Workshop title: “Crafting a Coherent Moral Stance on the Sanctity of All Human Life, especially in the Light of Contemporary Society’s Legitimization & Practice of All Sorts of ‘Deathmaking’ of Unwanted & Devaluated People.”

[xiii] Dispensationalism or premillenialism, is a particular strand of Christian evangelical fundamentalism  which chiefly focuses of the eschatological aspects of Christianity, in particular the “second coming” of Christ at the end of a millennium.  According to Mc Grath (1994:472) , this movement has developed a strong influence with Christian subcultures in the United States of America.

[xiv] Earlier critiques were undertaken at great personal & professional risk, so whilst there was some critical “SRV” “talk”, few of these ruminations were put down on paper. For examples of early work see (Campbell 1984; Ministerial Review Committee of Educational Services for the Disabled 1984; Perrin and Nirje 1985; Graycar, Dorsch et al. 1986; Meekosha 1986) .

[xv] The literature used has been collected over a ten year period from sources not readily accessible to people in the “disability” field in Australia.   The best collection on  “SRV” Normalisation: A Reader for the Nineties (Brown and Smith 1992b) contains a mix of essays favourable and critical of “SRV” from a British perspective.  This text had to be ordered in from the UK.

[xvi] “SRV” masquerades as a  “new behaviourism” where “the same groups of experts are doing much of the same business as usual.  The basic rituals incorporated in the move to the mind  … are still being enacted. (Cohen 1985: 152)

[xvii] This issue is explored further in Campbell (1999)

[xviii] My starting point is the Commonwealth Disability Services Act 1986.

[xix] A good overview of contestations over the meaning of equality in law can be found in Marcia Rioux’s essay “Towards a Concept of Equality of Well-being: Overcoming the Social  and Legal Construction of Inequality” (1994) .  An excellent synopsis of the problematical nature of “disability” legislation in Australia can be found in Margaret Thornton’s article “Domesticating Disability Discrimination” (1997a) .

[xx] These were drawn up separately and appear in the Commonwealth Gazette, No. S118, Tuesday 9th June 1987.

[xxi] As a Departmental Officer of the Cth Department of Community Services, at the time, I was made very aware of the necessity to ideologically adhere to such prescriptions (Disability Service Program 1990) .

[xxii] This is made quite explicit in the recent Victorian  State Plan (Disability Services Division 1996:22) .


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