When looking back, I realize my path has been a path of huge learning. I am still doing the same all the time.
Growing up, we communicated in Finnish sign language alongside Finnish language in our family. Although my brother is hearing, he grew up to be bilingual and bicultural as I did. He has worked with deaf people in the area of deaf education, and worked also as a sign language interpreter. Perhaps our bilingual and bicultural environment and upbringing led him to work with deaf people for many years before moving to other jobs. The way I see it, our upbringing gave us both an advantage of seeing things and people from a point of multilingual and multicultural perspectives. Perhaps we could understand and grasp things that most people could not.
Both my deaf parents have always been involved in deaf community activities. They also supported and encouraged deaf children and their hearing parents around our home municipality. My parents never left lonely deaf persons alone, but brought them to different occasions arranged by them and other deaf persons. It seems that their passions and values have been passed down to me.
Deaf leaders guided me to realize my and other young deaf persons’ huge potentials. They taught us to be proud of ourselves. Former WFD President Dr Liisa Kauppinen has been my teacher and mentor from the beginning, and she still does both. When I really think about it, I now understand why I was involved in deaf organization activities and advocacy issues for many years during my study years and professional development. I’m sure my professional path couldn’t have gone any other way.
When I was about 5 years old I started to learn the basics to read in Finnish. Maybe this is why my relatives suggested my parents that I should join a public school instead of a special school for the deaf. My parents perhaps also thought it was the right path, so I never attend any school for the deaf. Yes, it was tough being put into that situation at such a young age, but on the other hand I think that it was the kind of schooling that prepared me for my next steps, although I do not recommend this to any deaf child. Fortunately, in addition to my deaf parents and deaf uncle during my childhood and youth I have had deaf friends.
It wasn’t until my university years that I first came across sign language interpreters. It was an amazing experience for me! For the first time in my life I could fully understand what the professor was discussing, as well as the students. That’s when I decided not to participate in different situations without sign language interpreters anymore, because I realized deeply that I have the same right to full and equal communication as anybody else. Nowadays, me and the hearing people I work with use them all the time.
I think that as a member of the deaf community and as an expert and representative of national and international organizations of the deaf, I learn the most by interacting with deaf people from other cultures and countries, as well as the non-deaf professionals of various fields. Constant communication and exchange of ideas and thoughts help me grow.
While in university, I mostly focused my studies on learning and teaching, later on teaching the deaf, bilingualism and bilingual education. I also expanded my studies, adding in linguistics, psycholinguistics and linguistics of sign language. I received an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University in 2012 and from University of Jyväskylä in 2013.
One of the most important parts of my career so far has been as the president of the World Federation of the Deaf, when I attended the historical ICED (International Congress on Education for the Deaf) Congress in 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. It was at that event that we were finally able to remove the outdated and discriminative resolution from 1890 in Milan, Italy, banning sign language from the education of the deaf. Perhaps the most important task was to include sign language, deaf culture and identity in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities together with Dr Kauppinen and other deaf leaders.
After eight years as president, I decided to step down in order to see new areas and developments to work with as Executive Director of the Finnish Association of the Deaf. This way I can guarantee an increase in the quality of life and ensure the human rights for deaf people here in Finland and also all over the world. Amongst my most important tasks as Executive Director is developing linguistic and cultural rights of people using Finnish sign language and the ratification of the UN Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has still not been approved.
Although it may appear that I’ve moved from the international sphere to a smaller, more national focus, that is not entirely the case. If we are to begin expanding laws and making changes meant to improve the lives of deaf people, we need to do it on a much larger scale than just one country at a time. We do not live in one certain country anymore, because we are dependent on and interact with each other today all the time, all over the world. We do live together on one planet we are deeply responsible for. This is why I am seeking to find solutions together with the European Union and even the world as a whole. Together we are always stronger.
Most importantly, I believe that in order to truly know why we are here and what we want to achieve, we must make a commitment to our goals. My goal is to improve the future for all deaf people through working with other people, and I believe that by staying in touch with the social and technological changes of our time it is paramount to make that change. We don’t want to find ourselves suddenly behind the times. We need to lead changes together with other people and show the way.