Sign of the times: Helsinki adds interpreters to improve local government access

New language services in Finnish and Swedish could eventually be extended to cover all council meetings in the future.

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File picture of sign language / Credit: iStock

Helsinki City Council is set to add sign language interpreters in Finnish and Swedish in an effort to make local politics more accessible and transparent for deaf and hearing-impaired residents.

The move comes after an initiative by councilman Suldaan Said Ahmed (Left) received wide cross-party support among council members.

“I think it is a huge step for equality in Helsinki, because people who need these kind of services, before they couldn’t get it. They couldn’t find information about the decision-making process and understand what kind of decisions we are making in the council” explains Said Ahmed.

The interpreters will initially be available at the monthly city council question time sessions, but the idea is to later expand their use at other council meetings where members of the public can attend, or watch online via streaming.

“Sign language is a language like any other, and people in Helsinki have a right to fully understand what’s going on in the council. One big challenge until now is that they have become excluded from the process” he tells News Now Finland.

File picture showing detail on exterior of Helsinki City Hall / Credit: News Now Finland

New services welcomed by campaigners

The introduction of more sign language interpretation has been welcomed by campaigners, who say that other cities could follow Helsinki’s lead.

“This kind of sign language service at local level is not very common and we are highly pleased that Helsinki City Council has made such a decision to include sign language translation at council meetings from September 2020 onwards” says Tiina Vihra from the Finnish Association of the Deaf Kuurojen Liitto.

“This enables deaf people and sign language users to follow decision-making in Helsinki” she adds.

The 2015 Equality Act, the 2019 Accessibility act and the 2015 Sign Language Act – combined with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities which Finland ratified in 2016 – should all combine to enforce the rights of residents to obtain information in sign language.

“The situation is still an unfulfilled dream both in national and local levels” says Vihra.

“There are some cities that do provide information services, for instance Helsinki, Vaasa, Jyväskylä and Vantaa provide sign language web news and translations on council meeting minutes to their sign language using residents” she tells News Now Finland.

“Also several municipalities order sign language programs on current topics to their residents from the Finnish Association of the Deaf” she adds.

Eeva Tupi gives presentation at Council of Europe, Strasbourg 10th April 2019 / Credit: Merja Lahtinen, VNK

Finland’s EU initiative on sign language 

In spring 2019, during its Presidency of the Council of Europe, Finland organised a sign language event in Strasbourg to promote the rights of deaf people in member states.

Eeva Tupi, the first deaf sign language user in Finland to graduate with a Master of Laws degree, said at the event that everyone should have the same opportunities to use sign language freely, and achieve their dreams using sign language.

“Sign language is a right” she told diplomats and parliamentarians.

Tupi identified areas where the Council of Europe should be changing the way it sees sign language, so that it is understood as an expression of multilingualism or a minority language rather than just a disability.

She presented MEPs with a study that showed how to better implement the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people, and the use of sign language for Council of Europe members.

One of the aims of the recommendations is to look at the subject matter from a broader perspective so that instead of seeing sign languages only as a disability they would be understood as an expression of multilingualism or minority language in a linguistic context. The study supports the implementation of the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people and the use of sign language

Sign language services for deaf people in Finland

Deaf people in Finland have a right to use sign language interpreting services free of charge, and Kela has approximately 3000 customers using these services.

The Finnish Association for the Deaf says that while interpreting services are good, the optimal solution would be to have services directly in sign language – for example via website videos.

“If all the health care and social service professionals with sign language skills would be registered by their employers, it would be a huge step in finding the right persons, and giving sign language services all over the country” says Tiina Vihra.

“There is a strong wish that all the official crisis bulletins and other vital information should be available in sign language and at the same time with other language. At the moment sign language interpreters are not automatically in major press conferences, but we hope this will soon change.”