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.

Highlights from an interview with Dr. Scheinin

Last summer I worked as a legal assistant and project manager at the only law office specializing in disability rights in Finland, Lakitoimisto Kumpuvuori, an experience I’ll be sure to write more about at some point. There is one very memorable trip I made, though, that I was recently reminiscing about and from which I want to share one unforgettable memory.

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In early June, 2016, I woke up in Florence, Italy. It was through many unexpected turns of events that I found myself there, one of the reasons being an interview my boss and I had been able to secure for me with Dr. Scheinin, professor of international law and human rights. My mission was mainly to research the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and beyond the interview, I had temporary access to the European University Institute’s library. Italy, Fiesole, the EUI – definitely not where I’d ever expected to end up as a 20-year-old, Finnish, second year law student from Tallinn.

On the morning of the interview I walked up the hill from Florence to Fiesole on a quest to find Villa Schifanoia, where the Professor’s office was located.

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Over lunch, we discussed. Scheinin has, over the years, written extensively about human rights. Concerning disability rights, his publications include the book United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Beyond the book, I had gotten my hands on an early draft of the CRPD by him, in which Scheinin proposed that the Convention be written in the form of references to earlier human rights conventions. In light of this I was eager to hear his perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the final version. Years after his initial draft, he considered the greatest weakness of the CRPD to be that it was written in the form of State obligations rather than as rights of individuals. This, he reasoned, makes it much more difficult for persons with disabilities to use the CRPD in courts. Furthermore, the idea behind his draft, and behind linking the rights in the CRPD to rights States had committed to in previous conventions, was to counteract the contemporary trend of States aiming to dilute the obligations they already have during the drafting of new human rights conventions.

Another point Scheinin made on the weaknesses of the CRPD is the concept of reasonable accommodation, which in his mind gives States way too large of a margin of discretion – he fears States will tend to use this leeway to their own benefit in a way that disadvantages persons with disabilities. I will come back to this in a later post, as another Professor in the field argued the exact opposite, and I have an interest in discussing the topic in more detail.

To compensate for the weaknesses of the CRPD, and to ensure the realization of the strengths of the Convention, namely the many obligations States do now have in relation to disability rights, Scheinin emphasized the importance of creating a constructive and collaborative relationship with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Though the Committee doesn’t have the authority of an international court, it can still provide States that have ratified the Convention with interpretations which will show them how to put into effect the full potential of the CRPD. This, along with awareness-raising will play a crucial role in fulfilling the promise that the Convention has. Because so many judges are passive receivers, raising awareness about both disability rights and the reality of living with different disabilities will determine their understanding of the cases brought before them.

The importance given to awareness-raising leads to what was my biggest takeaway from our discussion. Surprisingly, it was unrelated to the CRPD and disability rights, though it applies also in that area.

“What advice would you give to someone, who would like to have a meaningful career?”, I asked.

I was taken aback, when the answer I got was to practice activism. Scheinin went on to further explain how little one could actually change within the structure and bureaucracy of large, international organizations. He would know, as he has closely worked with the UN as the Special Rappourteur on human rights and anti-terrorism. Instead, the Professor recommended taking action as a civilian in pursuance of the causes you believe in. This, he conceded, is key to making an impact. A quick Google search will show you that he has done just that. To hear such a statement from him, and to look back on his career and understand that despite and in light of all he has done, this is still his recommendation for where to get started, has made a difference in my way of thinking. I have cultivated a belief in and sense of awe toward grassroots movements. Though taking action is always scary and puts one in a vulnerable position, this little piece of advice is often on my mind and has encouraged me more than I can say. I hope it does you, too.

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I am grateful for the opportunity I had to engage in this conversation, and for Scheinin’s patience and generosity toward me and those his work impacts. I wholeheartedly recommend his numerous publications and blog posts to any and all! They are intelligent, very relevant and a good source for ideas to think about and discuss.