Disabilities across the world: Finland

Here at Disability Horizons, we’re always keen to see how disability is perceived and what assistance is provided outside of the UK. So we talk to new contributor Molly McPharlin about her experiences of moving to Finland from Scotland with her seven-year-old disabled son.

There is still so much good in this world, you just have to look for it. Sometimes in Finland it finds me, suddenly and without warning.

I was reminded of this today when speaking with Vuokko, our Finnish landlady. She was trying to explain how she felt when she first met our older son, Max, who has severe learning disabilities.

She had looked very carefully at Max and, in her fluent but slightly stilted English, wanted to tell us why. Before she was born, her parents had had a son during the Winter War that took place between Finland and Russia in 1939 – 1940. They lived in a small village in northern Finland on the Russian border. Her brother was born disabled and, because there were no doctors and no medicine, he soon died.

At his funeral, her father had to carry his body on his shoulder in a plain wooden casket as there was no one else to help. There wasn’t really any place to bury him. “I’ve thought about this for much of my life, how this must have been for my parents,” she told me. Her mother could not speak of her first baby for years afterwards. “Even now,” Vuokko said, “I  lie awake at night thinking of how it was for my mother. That’s what I was thinking about when I first met Max.”

I understand how she feels. Lots of people have this reaction of staring intently at Max when they first meet him, especially when he doesn’t meet their eyes or return their greeting in a way other children might. For some people, it is because they don’t know what to say when confronted with disability. For others, his presence may bring feelings or memories back that I know nothing about, so I try and respect and accept every person’s reaction. Meeting Max is a special experience.

Vuokko and her husband have lived in a number of countries and she has told me of the plight of disabled children in Gaza, who are not allowed out of the country to receive treatment to make their lives more liveable. This is another reminder of how happy we are to be in a country like Finland that has been so good to our family.

We arrived here in August 2012, moving from Glasgow for my husband’s job. Earlier that year I made a trip here to scout out specialist schools for Max and an appropriate place to live. At home, in Glasgow, Max attended a complex needs primary school. The majority of specialist schools in Helsinki are actually units within mainstream schools.

The school Max now attends caters specifically for children with complex learning needs from the age 6 to 19. The school is Finnish-speaking, but works individually with Max in English. There is a specialist music teacher and music studio, art room, therapy pool, beautiful old-fashioned wooden gymnasium, therapy rooms (where pupils can work with speech therapists) and a large outdoor space that looks out to the woods surrounding the back of the school.

Unlike in Scotland, where we’ve had to battle for enough teachers to be in a classroom, Max receives one-on-one care and attention, which is the same for the after school club here too. It’s a long day for Max, but he enjoys his teachers and the activities they provide.

On Tuesdays, I collect him from school and we head to a swimming lesson together, which is also organised by the city council. It’s a very small group  taught by a physiotherapist, who is also a qualified swimming instructor. It takes place in a warm pool owned by the council that is used for specialist lessons with a variety of groups. In Finland, it’s the law that all people (no matter what their ability) should have access to extracurricular activities.

KELA, Finland’s national social service network, have agreed to fund Max’s disability benefit, child benefit, rehabilitation therapies, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy, and an informal care allowance. As carers, my husband and I also receive 10 hours per month of babysitting that is paid for by the state so that we can go out and try to find some time alone away from our responsibilities at home.

On top of this, Max can receive 3 days a month of respite care. Though, because he is still only 7, we have not really looked into this benefit. It is nice to feel that not only is Max well cared for, but that for the first time in a long time, someone officially seems to worry about our well-being too, and not only as parents but also as people.

Getting around Helsinki has been surprisingly easy. We decided not to bring our car with us due to the added expense, snowy conditions and difficulty with parking. We did bring a large double buggy that Max often used on walks in Glasgow. Here, though, his walking really improved and we’ve not had the buggy out once.

Our choice of neighbourhood to live in, Ullanlinna in south Helsinki, helped. Despite being a relatively long journey to school during the week, living right near the water and several large parks made up for Max’s trek. On the weekends, we walk along the water to our favourite café, visit islands on little local boats and, now that the winter has arrived, go sledging in Kaivopuisto Park. When we travel around the city, the public transportation system reaches everywhere with all forms of transport being accessible. There’s even a website,, in English that allows you to plan your journey door to door before you leave.

We did have difficulties when we first moved here, though. The landlady of our first flat decided to sell it and evicted us, with only three months notice and in the middle of winter. When I first rented the flat, I didn’t know if I was supposed to tell her about Max’s disability. When she first met us after we arrived, I had a feeling that she did not like children, and was not happy renting to a disabled child.

When we found our next home and our landlady Vuokke, I specifically told her that Max had learning difficulties in order to judge her reaction, if nothing else. As we have experienced with the majority of Finnish people, she and her husband were incredibly welcoming. They made it clear that their building had a policy of non-discrimination against anyone, especially families.

Finland is a quiet place with an underlying sense of the ‘correct’ way of doing things. But, within that conformity life works well. We’ve adapted to these rules and feel comfortable within them here. Most importantly, Finland generally respects all people, regardless of their abilities. In the short time we’ve been living here we’ve seen plans to drastically change and cut benefits in the UK, children shot and killed while attending school in the US, demonstrations in Greece and Spain. These events make us appreciate the relatively slow, gently bureaucratic pace of life Finland has to offer. We are enjoying a good standard of living here, far higher than what most people have in this world. Most importantly, Max is happy.

Speaking with Vuokko made me realise how much I should appreciate these good aspects of life, that we are privileged to be experiencing them. There is so much attention placed on the daily horrors of this world that it is slightly shocking to find yourself living in a country that wants you to enjoy your life. I’m glad we’re here.

By Molly McPharlin

Check out…

International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
A life worth living: pushing the limits of Duchenne.
Invisible disabilities: small gestures and big impressions.

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