SRV Reflections: Susan goes back to school

The first week of school is always a busy week in our household, but this year it was especially busy because there was one more family member going back to school – me!  As my older son headed back to college, and his brother started grade 11, mom was at the University of Calgary taking a one-week intensive course in Social Role Valorization (SRV).  It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time and it was a great opportunity not only to learn more about SRV but to connect with about 60 students, agency leaders and family members from all over Alberta.

Before the course even started, within hours of arriving, I was having coffee with Ann Falk, who runs an agency in Sylvan Lake, north of Edmonton.  Ann’s agency has been providing children’s services for many years but as these children started reaching adulthood, the agency was asked to expand its offerings and start providing adult services.  Ann and I had corresponded via email and talked on the phone, but this was the first time we’d met in person.  We talked for three hours about different kinds of support arrangements, building relationships, minimizing bureaucracy, and about social role valorization, which seems to be better known and more prominent in Alberta than it is in BC.  I shared with Ann some of the many success stories of people we know who are living good lives in community, and she talked about some of the young people with disabilities she knows in rural Alberta who are aspiring to all the same things young people everywhere hope for – jobs, homes of their own, friends.  It was an inspiring start to my week!

The SRV course was four full days, and it was billed as a Leadership-Oriented Introductory Social Role Valorization Workshop.  The curriculum was developed by Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger, who proposed the idea of SRV to replace his earlier principle of Normalization and who wrote extensively on the subject and headed the training institute at Syracuse University until his death two years ago.  Normalization and SRV were foundational ideas in our field thirty years ago, and remain very relevant to the work we’re doing today.  Many of us at Spectrum have taken Michael Kendrick’s Optimal Individual Service Design (OISD) course, which draws heavily on SRV principles.  Dr. Kendrick worked closely with Wolfensberger and is one of the foremost experts on SRV worldwide, and has also written many articles on the subject.  I was first introduced to these ideas in University back in the 1980s, at a time when institutions were still a predominant service option for people with developmental disabilities.  Wolfensberger’s ideas helped to shape the course of deinstitutionalization in our province, and across North America.  I’ve written about some of this history and some background on Normalization and SRV in my new book, which will be available at our upcoming book launch on October 13th (a little self-promotion there!).

Social Role Valorization has gone through several revisions over the years, but in its most recent incarnation Wolfensberger defines it as “the application of what science can tell us about the enablement, establishment, enhancement, maintenance and/or defence of valued social roles.”  SRV has its roots in the social sciences, in particular role theory, which was introduced in the 1930s and was premised on the idea that human beings behave in predictable ways depending on the social roles they occupy and the expectancies placed upon them in those roles.  Wolfensberger applied this theory to people who have been marginalized in our society and observed that people who are not highly valued by society tend to occupy roles that are likewise not highly valued, which in turn reinforces their low status and limits their chances of obtaining the good things in life.  People with developmental disabilities, for example, were historically seen as being a menace to society, or as perpetual children, or objects of pity, and the role expectancies placed on them tended to reinforce these perceptions.  By contrast, when people are viewed in more positive ways – as contributing members of society, as friends and neighbours and employees – they tend to be viewed more positively and afforded more opportunities to acquire skills, build relationships and assume roles that are more highly valued.  Social Role Valorization provides a framework for thinking about our work through the lens of promoting valued roles and providing abundant opportunities for people to acquire competencies and be seen as valued, contributing citizens.

There are a number of groups worldwide that provide training on SRV.  The course I took was hosted by the Alberta Safeguards Foundation, and like other SRV courses it followed Wolfensberger’s curriculum verbatim.  The four-day course covers Wolfensberger’s 10 core themes for understanding SRV:

1.         The dynamics of UNCONSCIOUSNESS, particularly about deviancy-making, and the unrecognized aspects and functions of human services;

2.         The CONSERVATISM COROLLARY of SRV, ie. the importance of employing the most valued options, and compensation for disadvantage;

3.         The importance of INTERPERSONAL IDENTIFICATION;

4.         The power of MIND-SETS and EXPECTANCIES;

5.         The realities of IMAGERY, image transfer, generalization and enhancement;

6.         The concept of service MODEL COHERENCY, with its requirements of RELEVANCE and POTENCY;

7.         The importance of PERSONAL COMPETENCY ENHANCEMENT and THE DEVELOPMENTAL MODEL;

8.         The pedagogic power of IMITATION, via modeling and interpersonal identification;

9.         The relevance of ROLE EXPECTANCIES and ROLE CIRCULARITY to deviancy-making and deviancy-unmaking;

10.       SOCIAL INTEGRATION and VALUED SOCIETAL PARTICIPATION of devalued people in valued society

SRV is a deceptively simple idea.  At first glance, it seems pretty straight-forward, and indeed many of the ideas are so embedded in our day-to-day practice that we don’t think to label them as anything special, even though 30 years ago they would have been considered extraordinary.  People having their own bank accounts, attending inclusive schools, living in their own homes – all of these everyday things were unheard of for many people with developmental disabilities in years past.  Normalization and Social Role Valorization challenged conventional wisdom about the potential of people with disabilities and had a huge impact on the evolution of the service system we work in today.

In reading through the list of 10 themes, you were probably struck by the user-unfriendliness of the language.  My biggest hesitation with SRV is the inaccessibility of these ideas to those who aren’t inclined to sit through a series of rather dense nine-hour lectures in a university classroom.  My goal for carrying this learning forward is to find ways of sharing these ideas with our teams and people who use our services in ways that are most relevant and meaningful.  If you are interested in hearing more, or would like more information on SRV, please feel free to send me an email – susan@spectrumsociety.org – and we can chat or I can put you in touch with other resources.