Saturday, April 2, 2016

It's Easier To Be Blind in Finland than America

I never thought much about being visually-impaired as a child. I knew I didn't see as well as other kids, but it never seemed to play a large role in anything. It wasn't until second grade that I encountered my first "bully". His name was Andrew, and he would constantly refer to me as "blindy" and say other mean things to me at lunch.  That was the worst of it until fourth grade, when I switched schools and ended up in a more rural area, where anything and anyone who wasn't "normal" was fair game for bullying and harassment. To this day, nothing in that area has changed, and the saddest part is that all of this behavior was learned directly from their parents. The funniest part about all of this is that once I started to appear in articles and in the media, suddenly everyone became quite apologetic - but I digress.

When I moved to Finland, I knew that I would potentially have additional difficulties integrating into Finnish society because of my disability. I knew that I would be at a disadvantage when learning the language, applying for jobs, and learning to find my way in my new home town. However, I felt that I had to try, and that since I had previously traveled throughout both the United States and Canada with very few difficulties, I believed this wouldn't be - or shouldn't be - that much harder, aside from the language barrier.

It has now been four and a half years since I moved to Pori, and I can say with certainty that life as a blind person in Finland is, without exaggeration, a different world. Sure, I've had negative experiences and have had to deal with people who just don't *get* it, but on the whole, the ease and comfort of being disabled in Finland is why I never plan on moving away.

I've never had an instance where a cashier in a grocery store, or a counter person at a cafe, was annoyed to have to read me something, or tell me what's in something or what something costs. If I'm ever in a new place and I can't find where to go, like a new doctor's office, someone will always walk me to where I need to be, without hesitation. The only times I've ever had anyone truly misunderstand me were both at the local ice hockey arena, where there are a lot of stairs. Because the stairs have no silver moldings or any indication of where they end, I walk down very carefully, and feel with my feet for the edge before I ever actually move. I have been pushed, and I have had people curse at me under their breath, but I always tossed it up to them likely being intoxicated.

Pori is also special because of just how many traffic lights beep. The walking street is long, and most of the areas around it have lights that are also audible, which let blind people know when it's safe to cross. Yes, I know most cities all over the world have these, but what makes Pori special is where theirs are located. Even other Finnish cities aren't this blind-friendly.  Don't get me wrong, there are still intersections that I wish would install these lights, and it does make going to the library, or the health center, or my favorite pub, a bit trickier, but I also know that not every intersection needs a traffic light.

Most importantly, though, is how I'm viewed and treated by the people I interact with every day. At both of the jobs I've worked at here, neither my bosses nor my coworkers have ever treated me differently, or assumed I couldn't do something just because of my eyesight. They have all always encouraged me to try and see how far I can get, and have been nothing but supportive and accommodating when I've asked them for help. My friends are always willing to help me with little things, and are always pressing me to not be so stubborn about asking for help when it's obvious I'm struggling with something. When I was studying Finnish, aside from the awful woman at the unemployment office who initially told me I might be "too blind" to study, my teachers went out of their way to print out the notes and lessons they'd give in large print, just so I wouldn't miss anything. In almost every aspect of my life here, there are people who want to help me - even when I don't want to admit I might need help.

Americans can stand to learn from the way Finns view people with disabilities, especially blindness. In America, I was always reminded of what I can't do. In Finland, people ask me what I can do, and even encourage me to try things I think I can't do. In America, I always had a hard time finding "real" jobs because people couldn't see past my eyes(no pun intended). In Finland, it's rarely even brought up. In America, I was just "the blind girl". In Finland, I'm Felicia, and I like it better that way.

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