One of the most important characters in the history of services to persons with developmental disabilities in the US was Swedish. While Elizabeth Boggs had a major effect on increasing Federal involvement in financing of services for persons with developmental disabilities, Bengt Nirje greatly affected how the resources were used.
After studies in Law, Humanities, Literature, and Literary Theory at the universities at Uppsala, Yale, and Sorbonne, and after further years as a freelance radio reporter and cultural journalist, Bengt Nirje worked as a social welfare officer in the Swedish Red Cross at a refugee camp for Hungarian refugees. Soon after, he worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees in the mid-1950s.
When this commission ended, the Swedish Red Cross appointed him as chief of the Folke Bernadotte Action, a campaign to create new possibilities for children with cerebral palsy.
Through these experiences, Bengt came to learn about what he expressed, as “the alienation, non-normal demands, humiliations, uncertainties, and fears for the future connected with life in large collective institutions.”
This altered his direction in life and led to a strong belief in the normalization of living conditions and possibilities for persons exposed to this kind of treatment. When he was hired in 1961 as Ombudsman for the Swedish Parent Federation for Mentally Handicapped Children, he applied these experiences and his analytical ability to seek other solutions than institutionalization.
The product of these efforts was the Normalization Principle. Gerald Walsh, Executive Director of the Minnesota ARC, visited Sweden in 1966 and met Bengt Nirje. He was shocked at the differences in services for people with developmental disabilities in Sweden and for those in the United States. Gerald soon arranged for Bengt to visit the United States and share his progressive ideas on supporting people with developmental disabilities.
Raymond Doyle, president of the Minnesota ARC in the mid-1960s said of Nirje, “he is showing us what we should be achieving.” Most Americans were first exposed to Nirje’s powerful ideas in the groundbreaking 1969 report “changing patterns in residential services for the mentally retarded.”
Deceptively simple but profound in its effect, Nirje’s conception of normalization lay the groundwork for social inclusion and self-determination. Bengt remained a powerful proponent of normalization and remained a leader in the field of disabilities until his death in April of 2006