Most people take the right to independent living for granted. It’s not something they really think about. In some cultures, independence may mean being able to live on your own; in others it may mean living as an equal among peers.

For a person living with a disability, independent living can’t be taken for granted — and it can be hard to make others recognize that it’s actually a human right. Finland’s Kalle Könkkölä has been a pioneer in raising this awareness.

Könkkölä is driven by the knowledge that if a society is permitted to continue hiding people with disabilities, it will continue to forget them. That knowledge has shaped his career in politics and as an activist.

“My principle has always been that I want disabled people to be able to speak for themselves. It wasn’t always the case in past years,” he said.

Könkkölä was elected to the Finnish Parliament in 1983 and served there until 1987. As a member of the minority Green Party, he helped to help make Finland’s trains accessible to people with disabilities. But his presence was a statement by itself.

“It was the first time someone sitting in a wheelchair was in Parliament, and that raised awareness of disabilities very much,” he said.

The right to a job

People with disabilities have to deal with prospective employers who think that providing “reasonable accommodation” is too expensive. But Könkkölä has made several visits to the United States, where he’s seen how the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) works to protect the employment rights of people with disabilities.

“It is important that employers can see that [Americans] have had ADA in place for 25 years and you are not going bankrupt. It is actually a reasonable price to make things accessible,” he said.

Poster showing man in wheelchair in field near bale of hay (Courtesy of Kalle Könkkölä)
Kalle Könkkölä’s 1983 campaign flyer as a candidate for the Finnish Parliament (Courtesy photo)

As the founder and chair of the Abilis Foundation, Könkkölä makes microgrants to groups around the world that advocate disability rights in the workplace. He also founded and directs the Threshold Association, which works to improve independent living opportunities inside Finland. Threshold began in the 1970s to battle discrimination against people with disabilities at universities.

“At the time very few people with disabilities had the opportunity to study at a university. They were not allowed at school at all, and so we started working on the right to an education,” Könkkölä said.

“It’s a question of how we want our society to be”

As the organization expanded to promote independent living more broadly, “we realized we are part of the larger human rights movement,” he said. People with disabilities don’t want or accept charity, “but we really like solidarity” from nondisabled people.

“We need allies, and we need friends. I hope nondisabled people understand that,” Könkkölä said.

“Now that we are working for equality and human rights, it’s not only a question of disabled people, it’s a general question of how we want our society to be. Do we want to be equal or not?”