‘More persons with a disability should have to work in the development aid sector’

The Abilis Foundation in Helsinki is an unique foundation. It was founded by Kalle Könkkölä, a very well known person in the Finnish and international disability scene, in 1998. Its Board of Directors mainly consists of persons with a disability and also many employees have a disability themselves. The foundation helps people with a disability in the Global South. Jaana Linna and Rea Konttinen tell about their job with Abilis.
 
Both Jaana and Rea are project coordinators. Jaana is in charge of the Asian countries like India and Nepal and the African countries in which she had already started to co-ordinate projects before her regular job rotation. Jaana has been working for Abilis for almost ten years. Rea concentrates on the Mekong-region (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar) and Bangladesh. Rea has been working for Abilis since one year and a half.
 
How Abilis works
 
Jaana first explains to me how the foundation started. 'In 1998, Kalle Könkkölä heard that the Finnish government wanted to find a way to channel funding of the grassroots level in the Global South. There was a need to fund smaller projects of so called grassroots organizations of which the results could be seen more quickly and of which the local population could profit directly. Könkkölä already had the intention to do something with helping disabled people in poor countries. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs was willing to support this idea. Abilis Foundation gets most of its funding from the ministry.'
 
In total seven project coordinators work on countries that are on the UN OECD/DAC list. In 13 of those countries the co-operation passes through so called Partner Organizations. These Partner Organizations support local disabled peoples’ organizations with writing applications and reports. However, the Board of Abilis Foundation makes all the decisions concerning the applications and reports. Where there is no partner organization available, Abilis must network with other organizations which means more research to find out who's behind the request.
 
Not all requests for grants can be met. Jaana: 'Abilis gets about 400 requests for financial support a year. Approximately a third are accepted. Our main target group are starting disability groups. Our support is meant to improve their capacity and empower the disability groups ,so that the disabled people can advocate for themselves.'
 
Improving financial conditions of disabled people
 
Abilis has three important objectives. The first one is financial. Jaana: 'In each country we work, we follow the same procedure. People with a disability must get a chance to raise their income. They are often living under even poorer circumstances than the other poor people. They must be given the chance to start something on their own. Whether it's fixing shoes or repairing bikes or whatever.'
 
India is also a country you work on, but it's becoming an important economic power very rapidly ...
 
'That's true. When India is removed from the OECD/DAC list, we will stop working there. But, don't misunderstand: India is still a country where some areas are more developed than others and some states are very poor. Abilis wants to support persons with a disability who are living in these states wherever it is possible.'
 
'Disability is a human rights issue'
 
The second objective of Abilis is to stress the human rights aspect. Jaana: 'Our main philosophy is that disability is a human rights issue. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is the basis for Abilis’ work . Disability is not a medical problem. People with a disability have human rights as well. We support projects that educate human rights in developing countries.'
 
Are the governments of those countries always happy with that?
 
'Many countries and governments have limited resources to meet the needs of Persons With a Disability (PWDs) and to implement disability policy and services. They appreciate the Abilis support to local disability groups/DPOs. Abilis is a civil organization.'
 
Improving living conditions by raising awareness
 
This third objective is closely connected to the second. Jaana: 'The attitude of society towards people with a disability in the countries we work is often negative. Parents of a child with a disability are called "being cursed”. This negative attitude and discrimination make life even harder than it already is for the disabled. There are no services or aid devices. There's no possibility for education or teachers don't want a child with a disability in their class. They are regarded as a burden to society. It's a big challenge to change that attitude. Abilis wants to make impact. People must get to see the capacity of people with a disability.'
 
Rea knows a wonderful example of how this can be reached. 'There is a woman in Cambodia who's partly blind. Nobody talked to her, she was being excluded. Thanks to the help of Abilis she was given chickens. She started to make income with them and what happened? The people around her started talking to her since it was clear now she can take care of herself. Persons with a disability in the Global South are generally very poor, being discriminated and marginalized. They often even don't exist officially, because they have not been registered when born.'
 
Independent decisions
 
Abilis must follow guidelines set by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Development Policy of Finland. Jaana: 'Of course, the ministry has some control, but the Board of Directors of Abilis makes the decisions on how to spend the money received. The ministry can see what we do by our annual report. We co-operate a lot and quite well with the ministry.'
 
Rea: 'There are two other organizations that are supported by the ministry in the same way and with whom we share an office. We work together with them as well. Those organizations are: Kios, the Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights, and Siemenpuu Foundation, which focuses on ecological democracy.'
 
Aren't you afraid the financial support of the ministry will decrease because of the economic crisis?
 
'Abilis has succeeded in raising its funds! The ministry acknowledges we are doing a good job.'
 
Rea wants to say one last worth about the work of Abilis: 'I think more people with a disability should have to consider to work in the development aid sector. It's very interesting and also we as persons with a disability in the Northern countries do have a responsibility towards the Global South.'
 
Personal backgrounds Jaana and Rea
 
Although both ladies found it much more important to talk about their job instead of their personal background, here are some personal facts and their opinion about living with a disability in Finland. Which of course can in no way be compared to living in the Global South as a person with a disability.
 
Jaana: 'At the age of four, it was discovered I had a hearing impairment. At the age of 16, I was totally deaf. Now I do have a cochlear implant (CI) in my left ear, so I can hear again. But, when I have to speak in English just like with you today, I prefer the use of a sign language interpreter.
 
'Finnish government does a lot for the deaf and hard of hearing. Aid devices are being recompensed, just like the sign language interpreter. There's only too less offer of sign language interpreters. We need more of them. Another thing that must be improved, is the accessibility in public transport. I can see on a screen what is the next stop, but when something is being announced I don't know what it is about. I'm also active in the Finnish deaf organization and in the Helsinki club of CI-users. 
 
'I have had many other jobs before this one. It's interesting to work for other persons with a disability in developing countries. I want to develop more in this job. The work is never finished.'
 
Rea: 'I was 16 years old when I got an accident that made me become a wheelchair user. People regard a disability often as a hindrance. I don't understand that. If there's a hindrance, the society is. If there would be a totally inclusive policy, disability would not be an issue.
 
'Accessibility for wheelchair users in Helsinki centre is okay. I can take all means of public transport. Outside the centre, where I live, it is already getting more difficult. The situation for people with a disability in all Nordic countries is quite similar actually. However, there are still many things to be improved. The possibility to get a job for instance.
 
'I've had jobs in the social welfare sector, but my interest has always been the development aid sector. As a child, I lived in Kenya  and Uganda. My father worked for Unicef.
 
'I do have a son of five years old. To him, my disability is normal. Children don't have an attitude. They are curious, yes, and they ask questions when there is something on their mind.
 
'I have many dreams. I would like to live abroad again. Travelling, is always on my mind. In September, I will be going to Vietnam to see how the projects are doing there. We make such trips once or twice a year.'
 
For those who would like to learn more about Abilis or the other organizations mentioned, here are the websites:
 
Abilis: www.abilis.fi
Kios. www.kios.fi
Siemenpuu: www.siemenpuu.fi