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Since the late 1960s, normalization has been "a deceptively simple concept," often misunderstood and redefined. Influential writers like Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger greatly expanded the concept and wrote about "social role valorization." Another of Wolfensberger's contributions was a description of the role perceptions of people with disabilities.

The following role perceptions illustrate how our society has categorized and viewed persons with disabilities. But note, these perceptions are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. It is too easy to assume that one stereotype fits a given time or a given disability. Our perceptions are often a combination of many stereotypes and attitudes.

  • Persons with disabilities as sick: Those who need to be cured of a dread disease; referred to as patients; in need of professional care in a hospital setting.
  • Persons with disabilities as sub-human organisms: Perceived as "animal-like" or "vegetative," or as "garden variety" or cultural-familial retardation; treated like animals in institutions; possessing less than full humanity and not deserving of all human rights; referred to as "so-called human beings."
  • Persons with disabilities as menaces to society: Perception that people with disabilities are somehow evil and represent a danger to themselves and to society; this perception leads typically to a concern for and measures leading to the destruction, segregation, containment, control, and persecution of persons with developmental disabilities.
  • Persons with disabilities as objects of pity: Seen as suffering from some condition beyond their control, and therefore not considered accountable for their behavior; viewed with a "there but for the grace of God go I" attitude; paternalism and low growith expectations are typical consequences of this viewpoint.
  • Persons with disabilities as burdens of charity: Viewed as clients entitled to food and shelter and little else; the disability is often viewed as punishment for some sin, and any help rendered is more from contempt than sympathy; persons with disabilities receiving this "cold charity" viewed as draining public resources, and expected to show proper appreciation.
  • Persons with disabilities as holy innocents: Belief that individuals are special children of God, with a special purpose; seen as incapable of committing evil, and sometimes viewed as living saints; often viewed as "eternal children" who will never grow up