Social Role Valorisation has been widely taught as a theoretical framework in its own right for addressing the social devaluation of individuals or groups in society. It can also be incorporated in a variety of wider contexts to address a range of issues in the field of social care and welfare. Three examples are given of incorporation of ideas, principles and knowledge from SRV into other frameworks: in assessment of individual needs, in a general model for anti-oppressive practice, and in work with a challenging client group. Such integration with other perspectives can assure acceptance of the validity and usefulness of SRV as a tool in social policy, research and practice.
Social Role Valorisation is a well-developed framework for addressing the social devaluation of vulnerable individuals and groups (Wolfensberger 2000). The process of devaluation consists of perceptions of people as being in negative social roles -- e.g. as nuisance, sick person, object of pity, eternal child, danger to society -- with negative consequences for the person -- e.g. loss of opportunity, rejection, segregation, lack of choice, poverty, risk of abuse. The consequences are mediated through social processes of restriction, control, scapegoating, de-skilling and negative imaging. The response of an individual or group to this devaluation may reinforce the negative social perception of them in a highly negative and damaging feedback loop. SRV seeks to break into this process, particularly at the level of mediating forces in society, so that the process is reversed into one of social valuation rather than devaluation. The achievement and maintenance of valued social roles for people is sought through two primary mechanisms: competence enhancement and image enhancement (Wolfensberger and Thomas, 1983).
The impact of devaluation on an individual or group has come to be called their 'wounds', a term originally coined by Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche movement for life-sharing with disabled people (Williams, 2001). There are two instruments for evaluation of human services in terms of SRV: PASS (Wolfensberger and Glenn, 1975) and PASSING (Wolfensberger and Thomas, 1983). In each, the evaluation process begins with discussion within the evaluation team (PASS and PASSING always involve a team process of evaluation) of the 'wounds' of the service recipients. The evaluation considers the extent to which the service is addressing these wounds through adopting SRV, or exacerbating them through collusion in devaluation (however unconscious or unintended that may be).
Although SRV is intended to have universal applicability to any individual or group at risk of social devaluation, the development and teaching of SRV, and use of the PASS and PASSING evaluation tools, have tended to focus on services for disabled people, particularly those with learning difficulties (mental retardation), people with mental health problems and older people.
This paper considers some ways in which ideas from SRV can be used in other contexts which go beyond the usual teaching and application of SRV itself. The first two contexts considered are also general ones that go beyond a focus on disability, mental health or ageing. The third context involves considering the relevance of SRV in work with a particularly challenging client group.
In a PASS or PASSING evaluation, the discussion of the needs of the service recipients from an SRV perspective (called the 'foundation discussion') has a loose structure. Wolfensberger (1983) describes the process as follows:
[The team should] discuss what the characteristics and needs are of the people served, viewed from an 'existential' perspective. This discussion goes far beyond data and descriptors, professional diagnostic and labelling categories, agency language and conceptualisations, etc. It involves 'discovering the truth' about the clients, the nature of their social position, identities, and needs. (p.75)
In training on the PASS and PASSING instruments in Britain, we developed a more structured approach which evaluation teams could follow (Williams, 1995). The concept of 'devaluation' is a sociological analysis rather than a psychological one (Williams, 2001). It attributes the 'wounds' of people at risk to social perceptions of them by others. Hence, a study of the wounds of an individual or group generates a notion of their 'needs' in terms of changes in the determinants of social perceptions towards them, rather than their psychological needs (e.g. those deriving from Maslow's  framework). In order to outline these sociological needs, we carry out a lifetime review of the experiences of the person or group. The question asked is: To what extent have the 'wounds' been experienced in particular areas of life?
Based on original suggestions by John O'Brien, we cover seven areas of lifetime experience:
Consequences of impairment
Key life stages (e.g. birth, starting school, leaving home, finding a partner, etc.)
Future to look forward to
Moving from statements or summaries of experiences in these areas to statements of need is done by asking the question: How do I need my community to respond to my experiences in my best interests and to create 'community competence'? This concept of the 'competent community' again comes from John O'Brien (for example Zipperlen and O'Brien, 1994) and from the work of John McKnight, David Schwartz and others (for example Chaskin et al., 2001; Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993; McKnight, 1987; Schwartz, 1997).
In broad terms, the experiences can be turned into needs on the following basis:
(of the individual or group)
This is a basic analysis that takes place in a 'foundation discussion' in a PASS or PASSING evaluation. It can also very fruitfully be used as a free-standing assessment of need in any other context of planning to meet needs.
In SRV, the emphasis tends to be on lifelong bad experiences, with the need for active compensation being informed by the 'conservatism corollary' of SRV (Wolfensberger, 1998; Race, 1999). Briefly, this states that it is not sufficient merely to remove devaluing conditions, but that in order to reverse the devaluation process we must provide positively valuing conditions. However, in the framework for determining needs outlined here, the process draws attention to the fact that SRV (and other schema for anti-oppressive practice) have application even when people's experiences are good. SRV and other approaches to anti-oppression can be seen as preventive, although the emphasis in their presentation is often on them being reactive to clear evidence of devaluation or oppression.
This concept of SRV or anti-oppressive practice being preventive rather than reactive can also help in work with people whose experiences are bad. People who have experienced social devaluation often do not wish to be perceived solely in the role of 'victim'. Indeed, such a perception can feed into creating the negative social role of 'object of pity', which SRV would seek to avoid. Many people who have had negative experiences are happier to refer to themselves, and to be perceived by others, as 'survivors'. If SRV or other approaches to anti-oppression are first introduced as preventive measures, this can be less uncomfortable for people who may have experienced devaluation or oppression. In the author's experience, once they are comfortable with a framework as preventive rather than purely reactive, and hence potentially applicable to everyone without them being singled out for the 'victim' role, then they will come out with many personal examples. The 'wounds' can then be presented as a framework for analysis of the nature of devaluation.
Thus, SRV and other frameworks for anti-oppressive practice are relevant to people at risk of devaluation or oppression, which in certain circumstances could be all of us, rather than just to people whose current experiences are bad. Another way of putting this is: No-one has to be oppressed for me (and communities) to be anti-oppressive. Again, we come back to the concept of the 'competent community' in which no-one is oppressed, but which applies SRV to ensure that remains the case. SRV and other anti-oppressive frameworks can be preventive as well as reactive.
Incorporating SRV in a wider framework for anti-oppression
At the University of Reading we have developed a framework for teaching anti-oppressive practice to social workers which incorporates SRV but expands the principles to include a wider perspective. We call it the WISE framework, standing for:
The Image and Support elements incorporate the SRV themes of image-enhancement and competence-enhancement. These are fully described in the SRV literature (e.g. Wolfensberger, 1998, 2000; Wolfensberger and Thomas, 1983; Race, 1999). Briefly, the Image element concerns the recognition and avoidance of negative messages in buildings, notices, language, structure and content of services, etc., and the replacement of them with positive imagery. The Support element refers to practical support to people to assist them to function equally in society; it includes such SRV themes as comfort, access, modelling behaviour, direct teaching, provision of needed aids and equipment, etc.
The additional concept of Welcoming covers the welcoming of diversity in society, and the welcoming of individuals and groups. It involves getting to know, appreciate and value the characteristics of particular people or groups, including:
Their history, particularly their history of survival of oppression
Their own definition and understanding of their identity
Their contribution to society
Their positive belief systems
At Reading we get students to research these things about particular groups at risk of devaluation or oppression. They are then asked to consider ways of using this information to welcome people of that identity.
A simple example is knowledge of a greeting in the language of a person from another country or culture. There are some magnificent resources for this task: an internet website containing greetings in more than 800 languages is
Knowing positive information in these categories about an individual or group helps students to see those people as survivors rather than victims. This encourages an approach that is very important in social work: working in equal partnership with people to seek solutions to their problems, rather than trying to act as a 'knight in shining armour' rescuing pathetic clients out of pity (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 1995).
The second additional element in this framework is Empowerment. Wolfensberger (2002) has made a convincing critique of the notion of empowerment, arguing that it has become an all-consuming principle taken to extremes in many models and policies. However, some address of the feeling of complete powerlessness by many devalued or oppressed groups needs to be made in a comprehensive framework of anti-oppression. Some components of a rational concept of empowerment might be delineated as:
Supporting self-help and self-advocacy
Listening to people and learning from them
Involving people in decisions that affect them
Giving advocacy and supporting advocacy by others
Protecting rights through entitlements and legislation
Ensuring equal opportunities
The four elements in the WISE framework interact with and support each other. You welcome people by surrounding them with positive imagery, offering them practical support and ensuring they are empowered; you provide a positive image of people by welcoming them, supporting them and empowering them; you support them by welcoming them, presenting positive images of them and empowering them; and you empower people through welcome, positive imagery and practical support.
Such a general and universally applicable framework of anti-oppression or reversal of devaluation, such as SRV or the WISE principles, represents an alternative approach to that of considering various separate 'isms' (e.g. Thompson, 2001): racism, sexism, ageism, disablism, homophobia, sizism, etc. The study of 'isms' can teach us a lot, especially about their origins (e.g. in the pseudo-science of social Darwinism), but it also has serious drawbacks. Firstly, the standard 'isms' do not cover all groups at risk of devaluation or oppression. Where do single parents, homeless people or people who are dying fit in? Surely we don't need separate fields of study called 'single parentism', 'homelessism' or 'dyingism'! Secondly, a growing list of 'anti-isms' makes it seem as if a social worker, for example, has an arduous task of learning a large number of separate approaches: anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ageism, anti-disablism, anti-homophobia, anti-sizism, etc. Much better to have a general approach that is anti-oppressive in the face of any risk of oppression in relation to any identity.
At Reading, this approach has been successfully researched in relation to a very wide variety of groups:
Children in Care, Older People,
Young People Leaving Care.
The internet is a very good source of valuable material for this exercise. Virtually every group has an internet site giving the perspective of members of the group and useful information for any of the four elements of the WISE framework.
As an example, here are four internet sites concerned with people who are exceptionally large:
These sites address the oppression or devaluation of large people through, for example:
Encouraging self-esteem and pride in identity
Providing models of large people in valued roles
Campaigning against the abuse of people by the diet industry
Supporting those who wish to lose weight and those who don't
Giving advice on keeping fit
Providing social support, contacts, meetings and events
A final note in this section: one of the debates and controversies that has accompanied the development of SRV has been the distinction between a set of principles for action based on empirical evidence of efficacy, and a moral imperative to pursue that action. Wolfensberger's latest definition of SRV is:
A theoretical framework that, based on empirical knowledge and drawing on multiple theories in sociology and psychology, a) posits a relationship between the social roles people occupy and how they are then perceived, evaluated and treated, and b) affords the formulation of predictions of how shaping the social roles of individuals, groups or classes will influence how perceivers of these roles respond to and treat these respective parties, and the formulation of a great many strategies for doing so. (To be published in the International Social Role Valorization Journal.)
Are there limits to the applicability of SRV or other frameworks for anti-oppressive practice such as the WISE principles? Which individuals or groups should we protect from devaluation or oppression? Are there any individuals or groups who should be devalued or oppressed? These questions are only answerable through moral considerations, not empirical ones. The practical application of frameworks like SRV and WISE involves moral judgement alongside empirical knowledge and experience of effectiveness.
Applying SRV in forensic mental health settings
A setting in which many other considerations than simply anti-devaluation or anti-oppression have to be taken into account is a high security forensic mental health service. However, such places are usually called 'hospitals' rather than 'prisons' and they lay claim to base their work on the values-led principles of medicine and care. There should be a place for SRV in their work, and this was the subject of a study at two 'special' (maximum security) psychiatric hospitals in Britain (Williams and Dale, 2001, 2002).
Discussions with nursing staff led to the devising of a hierarchy of considerations, illustrated as follows:
Application of cultural values (SRV)
Application of cultural values
Meeting of clinical needs
which depends on
Respect for the
patient’s own values
which depends on
Application of nursing values
which depends on
Non-collusion in unacceptable
which depends on
Security (protection of the
patient and others)
Nurses could clearly see the relevance of SRV, but only if a series of pre-conditions for its application were met. First was security. Although the need for high security has been questioned for some patients (Williams et al., 1999), the primary purpose of the special hospitals is to provide a highly secure environment in which treatment, care and rehabilitation can be carried out. In this particular service, provision of this security needs to take precedence over SRV considerations. Closely linked with this is non-collusion in unacceptable patient values, such as violence, paedophilia or racism. Staff must be constantly aware of the risk of expression of these values by patients and a major part of their work must be to counter them and seek to replace them with acceptable values. Following that, the nursing profession has its own set of values to be acted on. For example, nurses should treat patients as ill or in need of care, regardless of the offences they may have committed. Next in the hierarchy of conditions is respect for patients' positive values that relate to their personal identity. This is likely to include respect for sexual orientation, ethnic origin and culture, language and religion, and allowable choice of lifestyle. When all these things are in place, patients' clinical needs can be addressed by professional staff. Clinical mental health needs may place constraints on the pursuit of SRV -- for example delusions may inhibit the development of social relationships. However, finally, when clinical needs for treatment and rehabilitation are being met, the considerations of SRV can also be implemented. Positive roles that each person may have had in the past -- e.g. family member, worker, community member, friend, home maker, citizen, etc. -- can be revived and strengthened, or attempts made to establish such roles if they have not previously been in evidence. The mechanisms for achieving this can be those spelled out in SRV -- attention to image in environment, language, personal presentation, etc. and attention to competence-building in activities, possessions and opportunities.
SRV can thus be a useful tool in rehabilitation, even in the extreme environment of a maximum security institution.
Three examples have been given of the integration of SRV into wider frameworks: first for assessment of individual needs, second in the pursuit of general anti-oppressive practice, and third in the value systems of maximum security psychiatric services. The incorporation of SRV into a wide variety of contexts such as these can assure the practical use of the ideas, principles and empirical basis of SRV for the benefit of a very wide range of people at risk of devaluation or oppression.
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Paul Williams, School of Health and Social Care, University of Reading, UK