In the early 1980’s, Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger developed a theory known as Social Role Valorization (SRV). In a nutshell, SRV seeks to identify specific cultural elements commonly valued by society and then, in practice, seek to build those elements in the lives of marginalized people; specifically, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
A basic tenet of role-valorizing efforts is the notion that the good things any society has to offer are more easily accessible to people who have valued social roles. Conversely, people who have devalued social roles, or very few or marginally valued ones, have a much harder time obtaining the good things of life available to those with valued social status.[i]
Simply, there are things we value as an American culture — gainful employment, independence, social skills, etc. If people are viewed as having those things, then it’s assumed they would have an easier time getting even more positive and valued things, e.g., a larger circle of friends, or greater influence within social circles. On the other hand, if people are perceived as having negative social roles such as poverty, isolation, poor hygiene or appearance, odd behavior, etc., they will naturally have a much more difficult time accessing the valued social mainstream.
Wolfensberger’s contributions to the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities were considerable and the practical application of SRV has had immeasurable positive outcomes in the lives of vulnerable people. That said, his theories also reveal a nagging truth about how we view others. Quite unfortunately, our perception of human value is often based on a sense of someone’s usefulness to the greater social order. In other words, if you want to be valued by others, you should look for ways to earn it.
The problem with usefulness
In a world in which personal assets and usefulness become the measure of one’s value, we are doomed to lives of struggle for more, ever terrified of vulnerability. Worse, we will always be at the mercy of someone else’s assessment of us. Having one’s abilities and other assets constantly assessed – formally or informally – is nothing new to the disability community. It is at the core of both educational programs and funding structures. And, oddly enough, assessment of usefulness can influence our acts of discrimination just as easily as our acts of mercy. In Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen points to an underlying danger of finding value in the perspectives of others, the danger of self-rejection:
As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.
The beautiful 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians presents a well-known portrait of God’s created people as all members of one body, each unique. While one is often tempted to conclude that each body part must surely make some unique and useful contribution to the whole, I prefer another takeaway. Through the eyes of faith, value and usefulness are regarded as vastly different things. All the parts of the body are proclaimed “indispensable,” not because of their usefulness, but because of their distinctive, intrinsic value, created and loved as they are, just as God wanted them to be (1 Cor. 12:18), the very image of God.
Making friends with vulnerability, especially in ourselves, seems to be a monumental task. I wonder, though, if the process of doing so might create the conversation space needed for finding true partnership and equality between people with and without disabilities.