As an AAIDD member, you may have already heard the Wolf Wolfensberger died on Sunday, February 26. For me, it feels somewhat like a pillar who has been part and parcel of my whole career has been lost. If you ever had the opportunity to be in one of his workshops or presentations, you would have never forgotten it. You might not like it. One would tend to get overwhelmed by detail and information. But he made you think.
As an AAIDD member, you may have already heard the Wolf Wolfensberger died on Sunday, February 26. For me, it feels somewhat like a pillar who has been part and parcel of my whole career has been lost. If you ever had the opportunity to be in one of his workshops or presentations, you would have never forgotten it. You might not like it. One would tend to get overwhelmed by detail and information. But he made you think. Besides being the key person who brought the concept of “normalization” from Scandanavia to the United States in the 70’s, he went on to develop the concept of social role valorization. It was always a mouthful to say, but it is basically at the heart of much of the work many have done in trying to help people with disabilities to be in roles where they can be givers and contributors as well as receivers of support. At one of the last presentations I remember for the Division, in New Orleans, he took on, in his prophetic ways, the initiatives in inclusive ministries that were surface only, and did not get to the depths of relationships and community.
Wolf was a long time member of the Religion and Spirituality Division. He was strongly influenced by the Catholic Workers Movement and L’Arche. When I came into the Division, no one really knew, I don’t think, except the members that he had written a number of papers and done a number of presentations for the Division on theology and disability. Some of them are classics, and, at least for me, were critical in my early education and reflection. They were scattered, here and there, some published in the old mimeographed occasional Journal that was done by the Division in the 60’s and 70’s, articles that probably, at that point in history, would have never made it into the AAMD journals of the time. Those needed to be saved for others, which was the major motivation in collecting them into the edited book done by the Journal of Religion, Disability and Health called The Theological Voice of Wolf Wolfensberger.
In the email listservs this week, I have heard a number of people say they had never heard of him. He was not one for the limelight. He refused to join the email world, convinced it was demonic, which is sometimes quite true. If you ever got one of his memos, printed on the blank side of used paper, with the alternatives on it for salutation, subject, and ending (e.g, sincerely, disgruntedly, and a number more), it was an event. I have saved most of mine.
We will hear more in memoriam over the next weeks and years, but suffice it to say, he was a memorable figure, and one who made a huge contribution to the history of deinstitutionalization and the rise of community services and supports.