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The Origin And Nature Of Our Institutional Models

From: Changing Patterns in Residential Services for the Mentally Retarded
Creator: Wolf Wolfensberger (author)
Date: January 10, 1969
Publisher: President's Committee on Mental Retardation, Washington, D.C.
Source: Available at selected libraries

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-This essay evolved from a series of lectures and an address given before the Wisconsin Association for Retarded Children, Janesville, Wisconsin, May 1967. The writing of the paper was supported by U.S.P.H.S. Grant HD 00370 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. I am indebted to my colleagues. Psychiatrist Frank Menolascino and Sociologist Richard A. Kurtz (now at Notre Dame University) for inspiration and critical reading of earlier drafts.-


In this essay I will attempt to define the nature of various models which appear to underlie the design, location, and operation of residential facilities for the mentally retarded. I will then trace the historical evolution of various models that have been and are most prominent in the United States. In both tasks, I will rely heavily on original quotations, because I found that statements out of the past often have more direct impact than any attempts to rephrase or summarize them.


The Language of Architecture


There is probably little disagreement that, aside from considerations of cost or of the nature of the prospective residents, the design of residential facilities for the retarded is affected by attitudes and philosophies held by the designers and those who guide and direct them. These attitudes and philosophies may be held without the holder being conscious of their presence. Indeed, the holder may verbally and vehemently deny holding an attitude or philosophy which is strongly expressed in a building.


There are at least three dimensions of attitudes and philosophies that can be discerned in building design. These are: (1) the role expectancies the building design and atmosphere impose upon prospective residents, (2) the meaning embodied in or conveyed by a building, and (3) the focus of convenience designed into the building, i.e., whether the building was designed primarily with the convenience of the residents, the community, the staff, or the architect in mind.


Each of these three dimensions will be discussed below. However, the reader is reminded that the three dimensions are arbitrary ways of conceptualizing or analyzing the situation. Thus, there is some overlap between dimensions, and features which may be characteristic of one part of one dimension may be found to characterize parts of other dimensions. Additional dimensions can be defined with equal validity, although those defined here were felt to have particularly salient relevance to the present topic.


The term "model" will be encountered frequently in this essay. A human management model is here defined as a consistent pattern in which the behavior of persons is structured by other persons who exercise authority over them. A residential or institutional model consists of the interaction of the physical environment of the residence with the behavioral roles that managers impose upon or elicit from the managed residents.


The Perception of the Retardate's Role as a Determinant of the Institutional Models


A person's social perceptions are profoundly influenced by his basic values and orientation to life. Certain of these values and orientations have clear-cut implications to one's perception or image of the retardate and his role. And one's image of the retardate has definite implications to one's conceptualization of the residential care model appropriate for persons cast into playing the retardate role.


As Shakespeare said:


"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts."
(As You Like It. Act II, Scene VII, 139-142)


It is a well-established fact that a person's behavior tends to be profoundly affected by the role expectations that are placed upon him. Generally, people will play the roles they have been assigned. This permits those who define social roles to make self-fulfilling prophecies by predicting that someone cast into a certain role will emit behavior consistent with that role. Unfortunately, role-appropriate behavior will then often be interpreted to be a person's "natural" rather than elicited mode of acting.


In institutions, role performance is influenced not only by the interpersonal stimuli to which an institution resident might be exposed on the part of the institution personnel but also by the opportunities and demands of the physical environment. For instance, the environment can very clearly express the expectation that a resident is not supposed to assume any responsibility for his actions, or that he is expected to act out violently, etc. By the same token, physical environment may impose a demand for controlled and highly socialized behavior which is clearly communicated to the prospective resident.


Social scientists in the recent past have elaborated a concept of great importance to the understanding of the behavior and management of retarded persons. The concept is that of "deviance." A person can be defined as being deviant if he is perceived as being significantly different from others in some overt aspect, and if this difference is negatively valued. An overt and negatively valued characteristic is called a "stigma."

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