Finland celebrates Day of Equality on March 19th. This is a good time to hear different voices and see different perspectives. For people with disabilities, there is still much to be desired in this respect.
“I couldn’t care less what people say!” This is a famous quote linked to the trailblazing Finnish author Minna Canth (1844–1897). It continues to inspire feminists and other human rights defenders to this day. A fearless mindset is admirable, and often a very beneficial trait in human rights work.
The world is, sadly, far from ready. For activists with disabilities defending the rights of their peers it is not that simple to take to the streets: without appropriate assistance, they may not even get out of their home, and reaching public places can be impossible due to inaccessible public transport. And, even when they get out and about, they may have to face insulting comments or uncomfortable stares.
As representatives of a minority, we simply are not in a position to be able to completely ignore other people’s words or actions. However, even though this is the reality, we must not let it silence us. On the contrary, we must make even more noise. That is what Judith Heumann (1947–2023) did, an activist and influencer who passed away at the beginning of March and whom I admire greatly. I’m sure that Minna Canth would have agreed with this. In her works, she often defended those in a weaker position and revealed the preposterous attitudes of society ruthlessly and skillfully. We can’t all reshape the world as strongly as Judith or Minna Canth did. However, we can all try and do our share. Minna Canth’s house Kanttila in Kuopio is currently being renovated to be used for culture-related purposes in the future, and I’ve understood that accessibility is being taken into consideration in this process. I hope that all who are interested will be able to visit the house, once the renovation is complete.
Demanding our rights
But isn’t Finland a model of equality? Isn’t this quite a good place for people with disabilities to live in? Am I not happy with what I have? Aren’t those with disabilities happy and sweet people in general? Many of you probably think I’m complaining about nothing. Some may even be irritated.
Of course, I can’t speak on behalf of any other person with disabilities. For those who were wondering: Yes, I am aware of my privileged position. I have a spouse, family and friends, I have been able to go to school and educate myself, and I have a job. I am heard and even paid to express my opinions in public. I have been raised by strong women. The long-term work for equality conducted in Finland and the related traditions have benefited me as well. When compared with many other places on Earth, my life as a disabled person is not horrible at all.
But even though I myself have been fortunate, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing to improve. I have to face prejudice and frequently justify why I need services that enable me to be an active member of society, for example to go to work. I don’t mind this, because I am capable of standing my ground and demanding fair treatment.
However, many people with disabilities in Finland are in a weaker position than I am, and they may be running out of strength. In my work for a human rights organization, this is an undeniable truth. Outside work, it mainly causes awkward silence. In the worst case, the weak position means neglect; placement in institutions or units of assisted housing that, due to a shortage of personnel, are increasingly turning into institutions. Out of sight, out of mind – and does anyone wonder why there aren’t that many people with disabilities on the streets?
One important issue raised in the discussion about people with disabilities is the right to intensive care in case of serious illness. These discussions are typically dominated by experts without disabilities. Extreme negative examples may make the headlines, but then life goes on, business as usual. The expertise of experts with disabilities – are there any? – is not often utilised in these discussions, and the opinions of people with disabilities are not surveyed.
Setting for less is not enough
In general, the discussion concerning people with disabilities in Finland strangely lacks ambition and analytic dimensions. We still have a long way to go from being objects of care to being fully empowered citizens. Rather than one aspect of humanity, disabilities are seen as a problem that needs to be fixed with a universal solution that fits all. Now that we have reached a minimum level of well-being, we should not expect more. Or at least we should not voice our wishes. I don’t think Minna Canth would be too sympathetic towards this hush-up mentality.
I still can’t say I wouldn’t care about what people say. I’m also not above worrying about what other people think about the things I say or write. However, we can’t improve society by settling for the benefits earned for select groups or by remaining silent. Words are deeds, words have power, they can hurt or aim to do good. This is why I am using my words and utilising the space given for them – in the spirit of Minna Canth, fairness and equality!
Greta Granö. Kalevala x Vammaiset tytöt art camp in autumn 2022.
On the day of Minna Canth, which is also dedicated to celebrating equality in Finland, we are giving the floor to Sanni Purhonen. Sanni is a producer and information officer for the Threshold Association (Kynnys ry) – a human rights organization – and she is also a creative writing teacher and poet. She has published three poem collections, among other works. Sanni also works within the disability organisations’ women’s network. Kalevala Koru is a cooperation partner of the Rusetti ry association for women with disabilities, and we have financed the creation of the online media for girls with disabilities at vammaisettytöt.fi.