Normalization principle

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In the 1950s, the normalisation principle was developed as a central maxim in dealing with adults with an intellectual disability. Initially it was elaborated as a guideline for the design of social services. Put into a short form, the normalisation formula states that the lives of (adult) people with cognitive impairments are to be made as normal as possible at all stages.

The idea of normalisation was developed in the 1950s by the Dane Niels Erik Bank-Mikkelsen. The Swede Bengt Nirje elaborated the principle of normalization and sought to put it into practice by setting concrete goals. Wolf Wolfensberger developed it further in the 1960s in the USA and Canada. In Germany, Walter Thimm is considered the champion of the normalisation principle.
According to Nirje, the normalization concept should have an impact on the following eight areas:

  • Normal daily rhythm
  • Separation of work-leisure-living
  • Normal annual rhythm
  • Normal experience in the course of the life cycle
  • Normal respect for the individual and his right to self-determination
  • Normal sexual life patterns of their culture
  • Normal economic patterns of life and rights in the context of social realities
  • Normal environmental patterns and standards within the community. (cf. Nirje 1994, 13)

The addressees of the normalization principle (three system levels) are, according to the American disability educator and psychologist Wolfensberger:

  • the individual person with intellectual disability (= primary or micro system)
  • the institutions (meso or middle system)
  • society (macro or larger system)

Wolfensberger further subdivides these groups of addressees into the action dimensions of interaction and interpretation. From this it becomes clear that normalisation refers not only to actions, but also to the way in which people with intellectual disabilities are presented “to the outside world”, how they are symbolically represented to the environment.

With the action dimension of interpretation at the three system levels, Wolfensberger draws attention to the prejudices and value judgements still mentally anchored in society. (cf. Wolfensberger 1986)

“After all, associations of those affected, institutions, journalism and the media (Aktion Mensch) are working towards changes in attitudes, and people with disabilities today generally no longer have to leave their home region in order to live in a remote location and receive support, education or therapy.” (Klauß 1996, 56)

The normalisation principle in practice

The principle of normalisation also includes the normalisation of the living conditions of people with severe disabilities. In reality, implementation has so far only progressed very slowly; e.g. often only “less severely disabled people” live in community-based residential communities. Gaedt (1992) points out the danger of the lack of inclusion of people living with severe disabilities in the normalisation process and the danger of segregation of this group in “severely disabled centres”.

On the one hand, the basic formulations of the normalization principle meet with approval; on the other hand, difficulties arise in implementing the demands. This may also be due to the fact that this is a principle and not a concept for action. Such a concept should be developed as differentiated as possible according to age groups, areas of life and also forms of disability. “The idea of equality, which is strongly anchored in the principle of normalisation, should not result in uniformity constraints when normalisation concepts are realised. “[1]

In Germany, for example, the principle of normalisation is reflected in the Disability Equality Act, where a “right to equality” is formulated.


  • Bengt Nirje: The Normalisation Principle – 25 years on, In: Vierteljahresschrift für Heilpädagogik und ihre Nachbargebiete 1, 1994, S. 12-32
  • W. Wolfensberger: Die Entwicklung des Normalisierungsgedankens in den USA und in Kanada, In: Bundesvereinigung Lebenshilfe für geistig Behinderte e.V.. (ed.): Normalisierung – eine Chance für Menschen mit geistiger Behinderung. Marburg 1986, pp. 45-62
  • Walter Thimm: Das Normalisierungsprinzip: eine Einführung., 5th ed. Small series of publications. Vol. 5. Lebenshilfe-Verlag, Marburg 1994
  • Dieter Gröschke: The normalization principle – between justice and good life: a consideration from an ethical point of view. In: Zeitschrift für Heilpädagogik Jg. 51, 2000, Nr. 4, S. 134-140
  • Brigitte McManama: Normalization – Principles that should change the lives of people with disabilities. A description of the way. In: For orientation 1994
  • Thomas Barow: Sweden’s Path of Integration. Bengt Nirje and Karl Grunewald, two ‘pioneers’ of special education in Northern Europe, on eugenics, mental changes and normalization. In: Journal of Special Education 53 (2002) 8, pp. 314-321
  • Walter Thimm: The normalisation principle, a reader on the history and present of a reform concept, Lebenshilfeverlag, Marburg 2005
  • Thomas Barow: Bengt Nirje. In: Mental Disability 45 (2006) 3, pp. 251-252
  • Annedore Prengel: Pedagogy of Diversity, 3rd edition, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2006, p. 155ff
  • Thomas Barow: The Origins of Normalization in Sweden. A contribution to the history of special education in Europe. In: Journal of Special Education 60 (2009) 1, S. 2-10

Individual references

  1. Gröschke, 2000, p. 135