I should disclose my positive predisposition toward this book right away. First, I appreciate this piece of writing, not so much as a book to be read and savored but more as the core of a way of thinking and acting that, I think, helps make life better for vulnerable people. More than 30 years ago, I learned how to use a predecessor to Passing. That was PASS 3 (Program Analysis of Service Systems: A Method for the Quantitative Evaluation of Human Services) by Wolf Wolfensberger and Linda Glenn (1973). Since then, I've used PASS 3 regularly. I have planned and taught workshops, and I've taken part in a lot of assessments of human services and agencies. That experience is the foundation for my thinking and whatever action I take to support people with disabilities. Therefore, I am biased in favor of Passing, a close relative to PASS 3.

Second, there are reasons why people might avoid reading or engaging with Passing, or why they might get discouraged if they try to do so.

  • 1. If one approaches it like one might approach other books, Passing is really hard to read. That is so, in part, because straight-through reading is not the intended best use of the book. The authors offer two devices to help readers keep their bearings as they make their way through. One device is a 6-page set of reading guidelines that include a checklist to sequence the reader's initial trip through Passing. The other assist is a 12-page glossary of terms. Passing's vocabulary is intentionally precise, but understanding often requires the clarification that the glossary makes available.

  • 2. First-time readers may be put off by the (again) precise but initially curious titles to the “ratings,” which are, in a sense, the chapter headings in Passing. Following the reading guidelines is the first-time reader's best bet.

  • 3. And, of course, people might avoid Passing because of misunderstandings about or disagreements with social role valorization. I argue that reading PASSING is likely to help clarify misunderstandings but that it might not do much about disagreements. Reading Passing is an unlikely path toward convincing a skeptic of the importance of social role valorization.

Purpose and Structure of Passing

Passing's main purpose is made explicit in the book's subtitle: A Tool for Analyzing Service Quality According to Social Role Valorization Criteria. The authors mention two other purposes: (a) to enable the planning of new or redesigned services using social role valorization as a guide and (b) to serve as a major method for teaching social role valorization. The centrality of social role valorization as a criterion for quality represents another purpose behind this particular edition of Passing. Although the authors have stated that the previous (2nd) edition was imbued with social role valorization ideas, the governing terminology in the earlier edition remained that of normalization. The present edition removes that source of possible confusion.

Passing defines social role valorization as follows:

[A] theoretical framework that (a) posits a relationship between the social roles people occupy, and how these people are then perceived, evaluated, and treated; and (b) predicts how shaping the social roles of individuals, groups, or classes is likely to influence how perceivers of these roles respond to, and treat, the parties in these roles; and (c) provides a basis for designing a great many strategies for shaping people's roles. (p. 39)

Passing works best as a guide, especially for groups or teams of people, for observing, interpreting, understanding, judging, and, ultimately (it is hoped), improving services planned and delivered by one group of people (servers) for another (recipients). People use Passing well when they have spent time in explicit training and practice about its use, in multiday workshops conducted by very experienced teachers. Those workshops and the experiences of participants in them fulfill one of Passing's purposes. The training contributes to users' learning about the complexities and subtleties within social role valorization.

According to Passing, two avenues lead to the acquisition of valued social roles. A person takes on valued roles if (a) her “social image” is enhanced…if she is seen and continues to be seen positively by others and (b) she develops and demonstrates “personal competency” that is important to her and to others. Passing contains lengthy introductory and explanatory sections, but the main content consists of “ratings”—statements of important issues relative to service quality as it is seen through the lens of social role valorization. All of the 42 ratings in Passing connect either to social-image enhancement (27 ratings) or personal competency enhancement (15 ratings).

The structure of Passing, described above, reveals one of its major strengths. Sixty-four percent of the ratings focus on an assessed service's contribution (or lack thereof) to the enhancement of the social image of people who use the service. This heavy emphasis on image enhancement is not accidental. Passing contends that the attainment of valued social roles by people who are socially vulnerable is the key to getting the “good things of life” (p. 40). Whether the roles enacted by someone are regarded as valued depends a great deal on how the role enactor is perceived by other people. Passing asserts that such perceptions of people who use human services are influenced in major ways by (often unconscious) things that service agencies do or do not do. Passing serves as a tool to foster analysis, and correction when necessary, of service practices that bear on the social image of recipients.

It is clear that one of the ways that human beings learn things is by association. We notice two things occurring close together in space or time, and, without necessarily knowing that we do this, we learn those as a pair, so that the repetition of one recalls the other. Among other things, that means that human services that want to portray their recipients as valuable citizens need to pay attention to how they put phenomena (people, places, décor, language, other symbols) about the service side-by-side. Many service agencies pay little attention to the messages they send through the side-by-sides (juxtapositions is another word for it) they create. Passing asks raters to consider this idea in multiple ways; it asks its users to think about many different kinds of possible juxtapositions.

For example, a rating titled “Image Projection of Setting—Physical Proximity” asks teams of raters to consider what sites that are not other human services (that is another rating) are located next to or very close to the service being assessed. The rationale for this question derives from Passing's understanding that closeness to other places that carry high social value offers a better chance to elevate the social image (and, therefore, the value of the social roles) of people using the service. Another Passing rating called “Image Projection of Personal Labeling Processes” asks a similar question based on a similar rationale. Here, the question at issue is whether the descriptive language and labels that service agency personnel use to and about recipients fit the recipients' ages and convey positive value messages about the recipients of service. As noted, Passing devotes more than half of its users' energy and attention to a set of 27 questions like those above because of its understanding of how important it is to bring unconscious, potentially damaging practices to light. To my knowledge, no other program evaluation method possesses the analytic power of Passing relative to the effects of often-unconscious imagery on the lives of people who receive service.

Nor are many other evaluation tools as rigorous as Passing about ignoring—for the purpose of analysis anyway—externally caused reasons or rationales for service practices that may be harmful to service recipients. As the book states,

Passing does not excuse service shortcomings that compromise recipients' image and/or competency enhancement even if these result from societal policies rather than from the service's practices, and even if this means that optimal conditions (and therefore rating levels) cannot be achieved for some services. (p. 54)

For many years I lived in a town that was economically dependent on a paper mill. Many paper mills smell bad and foul the air. The one in my town did. As a matter of fact, the pattern of growth of housing and commerce in the town avoided the area downwind from the mill. A local saying about the smell was, “It smells like money to me.” However, work at the mill was thought of as the best employment in the town. If someone got a job there, it was thought that that person had “made it.” The town was also, of course, subject to state and federal air quality standards. It would have been easy to imagine (perhaps I would not have to imagine this—perhaps it is a matter of record) debates about how to meet air quality standards and, thus, avoid government sanctions, while at the same time not inhibiting the economic engine that moved the town. Imagine suggestions that it would be prudent to ignore some of the air quality standards or, in essence, to shave points in assessments of air quality so that the mill would not have to make huge mitigation expenses. Who would have been affected? How would it have mattered? On the other hand, what meaning would have remained in the air quality measures? How could the results of the measures have been trusted?

Air quality measures exist because it is known that people and their surroundings are badly affected by polluted air, and we do not want people to be so affected. Passing, like PASS 3 before it, recognizes that vulnerable people are poorly treated and perhaps seriously harmed by service practices that portray them as significantly and negatively different from others and that fail to support their development as competent humans and citizens. Failure to identify such practices in services has a similar effect as failure to recognize bad air. The breathers of the air are harmed; the recipients of the services pay the price for poor quality. What is actually happening has to be acknowledged so that conditions can change. Passing is a way for its users to understand what is actually happening to people in a service, both the helpful aspects and the nonhelpful ones.

In summary, Passing is complicated. It is based on the idea that someone's attainment of the good things in life depends on the value of the social roles they enact, and, for vulnerable people, that value depends a great deal on the form and substance of services intended to assist those people. Valorization (adding to value) of roles has, according to Passing, at least 42 (the number of ratings in Passing) aspects to it, each of which should be considered both individually and with the ways that they combine toward (or, often away from) valorization. Passing is not easy to read. It is not easy to learn, because multiple occasions for using it are required for mastery. It is not usually complimentary to services or agencies that are assessed because it asks different questions than usual—prods at places in agency life that are not often examined. But, its use often yields revelations. And I hope that, despite the difficulty of Passing's use, those interested in “the good things in life” (p. 40) for vulnerable people will continue to invest themselves in the discipline necessary to apply this valuable tool with good faith and skill.