IDHD Student Visits Wolfensberger Archives (UCEDD IL)

December 5, 2018

In the summer of 2018, the Institute on Disability and Human Development (IDHD) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the UCEDD for Illinois, sent PhD student Drew Egli to visit the Wolfensberger Archives in Omaha, Nebraska. Wolf Wolfensberger is a prominent name in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities, he is probably best known for his advocacy and research that contributed to the deinstitutionalization movement and to a paradigm shift towards community inclusion that brought a sea change in thinking about people with disabilities.

In May of 2017, Wolf's daughter, Joan Wolfensberger, visited IDHD. During that meeting, Joan suggested IDHD send a student to explore the vast amount of work that Wolf left behind and document the experience and what they found. This suggestion evolved into a bigger project in which IDHD plans to send a PhD student to Wolf's Archives over several summers and to collaborate with the Nebraska UCEDD (Munroe-Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center).

Drew had the opportunity to explore Wolf's "seemingly endless stacks of books, articles, overhead slides, documentaries, notes, manuals, reports, artifacts, and unpublished papers". In his exploration, Drew noted that many of Wolf's books contained typed citations and notes from Wolf, often posing follow-up questions for himself or otherwise critiquing the content.

Drew noted that sifting through Wolf's personal collection led him to discover a lesser known side of Wolf, one that emphasized his vast interests. The variety of topics and genres within Wolf's collection are incredibly diverse. Drew describes stumbling upon some Ebony magazine clippings from 1958 in which Wolf was featured for helping a newly enrolled Black college student with her studies. Wolf also has an extensive collection of books and articles about Nazi Germany Euthanasia programs.

Drew commented on the significant amount of books about comedy, jokes, and even jesters, and Wolf noted within these sources that deviations from the norm were often considered "the punchline". Drew noticed a theme: Wolf had a passion for empowering those who were devalued by society, and not just those with disabilities.

Drew reflected on his time at the Archives: "My time in the archives has helped spark new thoughts surrounding my own interests and how they overlap or are inspired by Wolf's. If Wolf was still alive today I would first thank him for his influence on not just people with disabilities, but also for the potential of his influence on other marginalized groups. I would also ask him about the importance of a Pope Action Figure he has in his collection."

Adapted from Drew's blog post: