Social Role Valorisation: What is it, and what’s the problem?

Headshot of a Pākehā (white) woman smiling. She has brown hair and is in her mid 30s.

I would consider Social Role Valorisation (SRV) to be a mindset that disabled people will recognise quickly, but which often escapes critique because it’s hiding under a fancy name.

So what is it and what’s the problem?

I asked Ingrid Jones, who first brought SRV to my attention, for help in answering that question.

Ingrid is a disability consultant and ally to the disability community. She has worked extensively with people with learning disabilities and has a PhD in Disability Studies.

Ingrid explored SRV as part of her thesis. We both share concerns about its prominence and unintended outcomes in Aotearoa and elsewhere.

Many thanks to Ingrid for contributing the below post and wisdom. Please read and share.

Now, over to Ingrid.

I often hear SRV in the disability support sector and it always makes me cringe. Here is my brief summary of why that is:

TLDR (the short version)

SRV perpetuates the devaluation of disabled people because it focuses on teaching disabled people to look and act like non-disabled people. It’s essentially the opposite of disability rights because it upholds the very values at the heart of disability oppression.  

What is SRV?

SRV stands for Social Role Valorisation – it’s a theory for supporting learning (intellectually) disabled people which focuses on the disabled person having socially valued roles. The idea is basically that disabled people have a devalued status in society, and you can offset this by ensuring that they hold roles which are considered socially valuable (for instance by having a paid / voluntary job or doing something useful for your neighbours). When people hold roles that are valued by others, they will become more valued as individuals. The Imagine More website states “The more roles a person has, and the more valued those roles are, the more likely that person is to have the good things in life”.

SRV is absolutely not ill-intentioned and nor are the people who promote it. It has led to some really positive outcomes for disabled individuals. People love it because it comes with some handy easy-to-use tools and ideas that anyone can apply in their work to help disabled people. Useful, right?

The Problem:

Unfortunately, SRV has the side-effect of actually perpetuating the devalued status of disability and disabled people. The focus is placed entirely on the disabled person to change themselves, hide their disabilities and conform to so-called “normal” society if they want to be valued. For instance:

  • People are encouraged to dress really well in public, because well-dressed people are often treated better (in the same way that my Māori friend once told me he intentionally dresses up in shirts to off-set his Māori looks, so people won’t assume he’s going to steal their stuff)
  • There is a strong and continuous focus on teaching people to upskill (essentially, to get as close to being non-disabled with their skill-set as they can)
  • People are encouraged and supported to do what their non-disabled peers are doing, and quietly discouraged from doing things that non-disabled people don’t do. 20-year-old guy wants to go partying? Great! Wants to find a girlfriend? Great! But when the same guy wants to throw a My Little Pony themed 21st party where everyone plays with toy horses and dances to The Wiggles, he’ll probably be encouraged to choose something more “age appropriate”.* 
  • It places a higher value on non-disabled relationships than disabled relationships, and sometimes actively discourages disabled people from congregating together (because this enhances the devaluation, as the theory states). This has caused immense harm to disabled people who are missing out on the opportunity to form a community, find a sense of solidarity with others who are like them, and come to realise that other people face the same experiences of discrimination and oppression as they do (which is a critical step on the journey towards rights).

What SRV doesn’t say

SRV doesn’t say “you are just enough as you are, you don’t need to change a thing about yourself in order to be valued”, it doesn’t say “the problem is the way society thinks, not who you are as a person”, and nor does it say “you should pursue what brings you joy and makes you happy, who cares what other people at the same ‘age and stage’ do!”.

It also doesn’t provide any language or tools for disabled people to value themselves and other disabled people, with their disabilities, not in spite of them. SRV never challenges the status quo or fact that society sees disabled people as devalued, it basically just accepts the devaluation and then encourages people to live up to the very values, norms and power structures that lead to devaluation. In short, SRV seeks to help disabled people but unwittingly perpetuates disability oppression in the process.

What can you do instead?

  1. Focus on opportunities for people to be able to meaningfully contribute to the world around them (which may or may not look like something you would call a ‘valued social role’). We know this is an important part of a good life for most people.
  2. Throw out the word “normal”. It’s a made-up construct that nobody ever reaches (do you know anyone who is normal?), and it shuts down so much of the richness that is life. Encourage people to do what makes them happy, regardless of how “normal” it is.
  3. Support disabled people to build, maintain and value their relationships with other disabled people.
  4. Keep supporting people to grow and learn, but do it because it’s awesome to grow as a person, not because you need to change who you are if you want society to value you.
  5. Ask yourself if the things you’re doing and saying are reinforcing a disability hierarchy, or if you’re helping to challenge the idea that being ‘less disabled’ is naturally better and more worthy of value.

Keep reading

For a more academic perspective and links to other academic resources, see pages 48-51 of Ingrid’s PhD thesis under the section Normalisation.

* Read about why “mental age theory” hurts people with intellectual disabilities


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