Meeting a deaf-blind lawyer,
Mr. Riku Virtanen
Recently, thanks to a programme organized by the Bangalore Unit of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and the Society for Human Rights, Bangalore, I was able to have my first ever meeting with a deaf-blind person. Mr. Riku Virtanen is a lawyer who specializes in human rights and hails from Finland.
Interestingly, even thought Mr. Virtanen is young, he is already rather accomplished. A Board member on the Threshold Association (a human rights organization which promotes the rights of persons with disabilities in Finland), he is also a Consultant Member on the Board of the Finnish Deafblind Association and has worked on several reports and surveys in Finnish.
Mr Virtanen has also published a survey in English related to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in May 2008 and in addition was at two Ad Hoc meetings when the United Nations was preparing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
My first thought, which was a strong motivator for attending this meeting, was how does a person who is both deaf and blind communicate? I had heard about deaf-blindness thanks to Helen Keller, but reading about Helen Keller was theory, meeting someone who was like her was intriguing. And there was Mr Virtanen, sitting at his Braille display board with his two interpreters by his side; incidentally both of them are named Jenni (pronounced Yenni in Finish).
Mr Virtanen uses a combination of Jaws and the Braille display board when he is working on the computer. His Braille display board acts as both a keyboard and a monitor. Text on the screen uses Jaws and converts itself into Braille, it then displays itself on his Braille display board. The Braille display board can also be typed on and the content will get converted into text on the computer. This is how Mr Virtanen surfs the net, replies to his mail and types into his computer.
Additionally, Mr Virtanen also uses sign language to communicate with those around him, and by placing his hand on the hand of the interpreter who is also signing, can read what is being said to him!. Thanks to his supporting country Mr Virtanen is also lucky to have a cochlear implant which along with a hearing aid allows him to hear albeit only slightly.
Just sitting at the discussion with Mr Virtanen was an interesting process in participating in an ‘Inclusive Discussion’. The participants had to speak slowly to allow the first interpreter to type on what those around were saying into the computer, even while Mr Virtanen kept feeling and thus reading his way on the Braille display board.
When Mr Virtanen wanted to intervene he would sign and vocalize to his interpreter in Finnish, who would then translate it into English for the audience. A seemingly slow process, but an interesting lesson in inclusion, participation and democracy at a discussion. Amazingly, Mr Virtanen reads and writes English, but speaks Finish! Don’t ask me to explain this one J
Undoubtedly, Finland is a better place to be in for a deaf-blind person, than India. This country allowed, Mr. Riku Virtanen to go to school, college and then law school. However Mr. Virtanen assures us it wasn’t easy, having a disability is an expensive affaire, as the person requires assistive devices, assistive technologies and a personal assistant as in the case of Mr. Virtanen. His parents had to fight with the government to have them fund these facilities and that’s how Mr. Virtanen got introduced to the ‘Rights’ issue of disability, it also guided him to law.
Interestingly, Mr. Virtanen lives independently in Finland, though he requires assistance when he goes out. He currently uses the white cane to move around but is also accompanied by a personal assistant. Mr. Virtanen hopes to get himself a guiding dog sometime soon.
Mr. Virtanen also has hobbies just like all other people, and they include chess, fishing and collecting ancient books, which he clarified, he does not read J.
What came across from the discussion was that a country like Finland, allows a person with disability to live as independent and fulfilled a life as a non-disabled person and that’s what Mr. Virtanen said as much.
But all is not rosy; Finland has much scope to improve, especially in terms of accessibility. It is also yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities but that is because it is currently trying to harmonize its internal legislation with the international one.
India on the other hand is quiet the reverse. It is quick to ratify any international convention and laws, but is extremely slow to implement these changes national, and it is needless to say that this is the case with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities too.