Wolf Wolfensberger’s A History of Western Human Services: Universal Lessons and Future Implications

To access: A History of Human Services, Universal Lessons, and Future Implications (a video series)

St. Sampson the Hospitable, responsible for the creation of early hospices in Constantinople in the time of Emperor Justinian

This is a video series of a two day symposium given by Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger and his associate, Susan Thomas at Millersville University of Pennsylvania in September 1998. Suffice to say that Dr. Wolfensberger was a giant in this field of study. He died a couple years ago.

With great detail and many illustrations, the rise and Wethe fall, and the subsequent recent rise and predicted fall of the quality of human services in the western world are graphically portrayed by two people who have devoted their lives to improving the lot of mentally retarded people. ( Dr. Wolfensberger himself insisted that “mentally retarded’ was the proper term and decried the terminology that replaced it.) 

Access: A Gallery of Images Used in the Presentation 

The entire series is ten hours and ten minutes but it is broken up into 31 video segments. 

A Summary:

The first rise came with early Christian social services, which was considered service to God and to be properly totally voluntary. The living arrangements of disabled people came to be in the shape of a cross, with the Eucharistic altar in the center.

The fall came with the Black Plague and the eventual secularization of services which attended the Reformation and the decline of the monastic institution in western Europe. People with disabilities were increasingly seen as hindrances to a well-ordered society, menaces, if you will. Hence Dr. Wolfensperger’s term menacization. He was very good at coining terms.  

Institutions became larger and larger, and placed far away from population centers. Aside from some rare exceptions, deplorable conditions continued for institutionalized people with disability well into the twentieth century. Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” found application in social policies, in which families with high percentages of disabled and “dysfunctional” people were seen as only fit for sterilization. Dysfunctional people needed to be weeded out of society. This is call Euthanasia, and the philosophy,  Social Darwinism. 

But beginning in the 1970s these horrendous institutions began to be exposed. Families with disabled children united to advocate for better education for their children, and better living arrangements for their adult children who became too difficult for these parents to care for as they entered their senior years. And with the help of visionaries such as Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger,  great improvements came about, thank God.

Access: Wolf Wolfensberger: Hero of deinstitutionalization 

The final video segments detail areas of service that are still in need of improvement, and cultural conditions that are developing which do not bode well for the future of quality human services to people with disabilities. 

Some commentary on Dr. Wolfensberger’s warnings in regard to cultural trends

It may be noted that in the 15 years that have transpired since this historic symposium, federal, state, and local governments (in the USA specifically), which admittedly came to be running shortfalls, have been cutting the budgets of social service agencies, making it harder to sustain quality  services. In the final analysis, perhaps because some social service failures have been highlighted, the American people have come to value the extra money in their pockets rather than quality services to those in need. 

Darwinism is generally accepted as the theory that explains animal and human survival in our country and in the world as a whole. Views such as Intelligent Design, which posit God as the ultimate Source of life (whether by fiat or process) are dismissed by the scientific establishment without much examination.

And it’s offspring, Social Darwinism, is unfortunately on the ascendency as well, as economic problems begin to persistently plague the countries of the western world, which are at the mercy of the the corporate leaders of the global economy. The world’s goods are made where they can be had at the cheapest rate, which means the workers are paid as cheaply as possible, despite the reality that these workers are working long hours for pay that barely ensures survival.

And if it becomes normative for functional workers to live this way, what is to become of those who do not have the ability to be competitively functional?  Will they be supported so as to have a life with quality? Will their capabilities be cultivated?

It will be up to those of us who have been granted the gift to see a meaning to life beyond the narrow, material, monetary “bottom line” to struggle to realize the continuation of the progress that has been made by those such as Dr. Wolf Wolfensperger, for the love of the people we have been privileged to serve. 

“… For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are,  that no flesh should glory in His presence. ….

… But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.

(St. Paul’s 1st letter to the  Corinthians 1:23-29 & 12:20-22)

Jesus said, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” 

(The Gospel of St. Luke 14:12-14)

New King James Version (NKJV) The Holy Bible, New King James Version Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. BibleGateway.com 
icon from The Saint Sampson 

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