About the new rights given to persons with disabilities in Finland last summer

Last summer I worked for the only Finnish law office specializing in disability rights, Law Office Kumpuvuori. It was a great privilege, not to mention a challenge and an immeasurably important learning experience. In an interview shared on the law office’s Facebook page I answered the question “how did you end up seeking employment at a disability rights law office?”. My answer was divided into two main points. In one, I shared candidly about my disabled sister, through whom I have had experiences related to the everyday life of someone living with a disability. Because of her and thanks to her, I have an interest in rights of persons with disabilities. Secondly, I knew what an important role my boss, Mr. Kumpuvuori, played and plays as an advocate for human rights. On my quest for a career that holds meaning and value, I knew I had a lot to learn from him.

As I am wrapping up my thesis, and starting my next big writing project and job, I thought it a good time to share a little titbit about that work experience. Coincidentally, the video of a seminar I helped organize, host and that I spoke at was just published. The video below is currently only available in Finnish and in sign language, but I will summarize my main arguments relating to the article I was outlining.

During my job as a legal assistant and project manager at Kumpuvuori, I conducted research relating to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (henceforth ‘the UNCRPD’ or ‘the Convention’). As one of the last countries in the EU to ratify the Convention, Finland did so just as my internship began. For my research I visited the European University Institute in Florence, about which you can read more in an earlier post, Harvard and the office of the International Disability Alliance in NYC. The last to visits I will surely share more about later. All the while, I was gathering information for, among other purposes, an article I was writing. In this very article I explored the claim by the Finnish government, that the UNCRPD brought no new rights to the Finnish legal system. My conclusion was clear – at least in theory and in a formal sense this claim is far from true.

The rights provided by the UNCRPD are much broader when it comes to, for example, accessibility. Though the recent amendments made to the Finnish non-discrimination law did broaden the existing obligation to make many venues accessible also to private actors, the accessibility obligations are still sprinkled into many different codes and do not amount to the responsibility State Parties have to take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas. These measures, which shall include the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility, shall apply to, inter alia: buildings, roads, transportation and other indoor and outdoor facilities, including schools, housing, medical facilities and workplaces; information, communications and other services, including electronic services and emergency services. Furthermore, State Parties must also ensure that private entities that offer facilities and services which are open or provided to the public take into account all aspects of accessibility for persons with disabilities, provide in buildings and other facilities open to the public signage in Braille and in easy to read and understand forms; provide forms of live assistance and intermediaries, including guides, readers and professional sign language interpreters, to facilitate accessibility to buildings and other facilities open to the public and so on. All this is laid down in article 9 of the UNCRPD. Quite ironically, whilst I was writing this article the public transport in Helsinki switched to a ticket-reader that was not accessible to people who are visually impaired. This was definitely contrary to the right stipulated clearly in the Convention.

I also did not fail to argue that though the amendment to the non-discrimination law had already been made as a pre-harmonization measure, it still was a new right brought by the UNCRPD due to the fact that it was exactly that – a measure taken to align the Finnish law with the UNCRPD to allow it to be ratified. There were also other such steps taken in Finland, all of which in my opinion are, despite the official statement that the UNCRPD brings no new rights, rights brought about by that very Convention.

The Convention also covers much more broadly than the Finnish law the right of persons with disabilities to be closely consulted with and actively involved in the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the present Convention, and in other decision-making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities (Article 4(3)). Beyond this, the UNCRPD also gives at least two completely new rights, the first being the obligation of State Parties to raise awareness (Article 8) and the right to make communications to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the basis of a violation by a State Party (Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Article 1). These are both rights that are crucial to make the Convention’s rights reality instead of just ‘law on paper’.

The video from the seminar is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj-Wgg6i_78&t=4086s, and the floor is mine starting at around 44:00. If you skip ahead to 1:04:30, you can see the former Finnish President Tarja Halonen present to me an award I was given for my work that summer. If you speak Finnish or sign, I do recommend the entire seminar, featuring speakers such as Li Andersson, Kirsi Pimiä and Colin Allen, among others!

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Photos by Jussi Eskola.

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