Just What is Normal These Days?

The blog this week was written by George Martin, President of The Arcadia Institute. When I began working as a professional Advocate in the mid-seventies on behalf of people with disabilities, the concept of Normalization was emerging as a guiding philosophy for the provision on services. The person most responsible for popularizing the term in this country was Wolf Wolfensberger.

Wolfensberger referred to techniques, or processes, used to provide services and support to individuals that were as close to those that the mainstream culture adopted as possible. So that, for instance, a person with an intellectual disability may not be able to perform the same tasks as a person without this kind of disability, but educational techniques were to be employed that were as similar to those used for others as possible. The standard, for example, for a typical day would be like most other people, beginning with breakfast, leading to work or school, coming home after those activities, eating dinner at a usual hour and retiring for bed, just as people considered normal would do.

The problem we encounter today has two facets. One is the difficulty in defining what is ‘normal’. If you add up all the students in a community today who have some kind of label (‘special education eligible’, qualifying for ‘free or reduced lunch’, ‘gifted and talented’, ‘at risk’), you might find that they outnumber the rest of the student population. We need to stop acting as if students who are different in one important way or another are the exception. They are becoming the rule.

The second difficulty with using what the mainstream culture does as the norm is that what the mainstream does is not necessarily what we want people to imitate. ‘Mainstream’ is all too often taking us in a direction we do not want people who look to us for guidance to follow.

The difficult challenge we have to face is to work with each person as a unique individual, with characteristics that differ from all other people, but we should know that it is not the difference that should set him or her apart from everyone else. The standard should no longer be ‘what the mainstream culture considers to be normal’. It should be what each person needs in order to be able to take part in the common life shared by all. Differences should be respected and expected, and arrangements or accommodations should be provided that allow each person to participate.

We also need to accept the difficult reality that if the term ‘normal’ has any value, it has to be re-defined.