Hello, I’m French, with physical disability since 2009. My French partner and I decided to leave France and come to Finland in March 2019. As we’re both French, living abroad, we’re considered as an intercultural couple.
I’d like to share with you my experience as a disabled newcomer to Finland, without speaking Finnish. To begin with, I’m going to talk a bit about the situation before leaving. I was anxious about leaving the country without having information on disability, because I knew how difficult the French procedures related to this subject were. Indeed, in France, it was complicated to be recognized, receive an allowance, and make my right as a disabled person respected. So, what will it be in Finland?
Before leaving, we started my information quest. We tried to find information by myself, and one useful website was InfoFinland. We also contacted the French consulate in Finland and the Finnish consulate in France. We didn’t receive a lot of information from both places, but at the Finnish consulate, the person we met really tried to help. She recommended us to go on Invalidiliito website. We didn’t contact them at first, because they were not really answering my questions. As France and Finland belong to E.U., we wanted to know if the documents stating my disability were valid in Finland, because they’re done in respect of European rules. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any information on that before leaving.
Of course, doctors and administrations are not the whole life of a disabled person. From a personal perspective, my partner is my main moral support. He helps me with everyday tasks, and I thank him a lot for all he does. He’s not a Finn and doesn’t speak Finnish, so he feels powerless regarding my struggles with administrations, doctors, etc.
We arrived in January 2020 in Finland and the journey from here has been an individual one because organizations only speak to the concerned person. As a newcomer, I did most of my administrative inquiries with International House of Helsinki. As my French disability recognition was not valid here, they advised that I could see a doctor with my French medical history and this recognition. The doctor would then establish recognition in Finnish and issue a medical certificate for Kela.
Explained like that, it seems simple. Except, it took me 6 months to, finally, see a doctor and have the certificate sent to Kela. But my recognition as a disabled person had been rejected. As I did n’t understand the reason for this rejection, I asked for help from an organization who supports immigrant persons with disabilities and long-term illness : Hilma ry. We were already in October 2020. Hilma helped me with the appeal, and other applications (disability card, parking card). Something I learned during these events, and can be useful to know from the start, is that the two main services providers are Kela and your municipality, in my case: Helsingin kaupunki. Kela can give disability allowance, some rehabilitation services, different cards, … With the municipality, you can have access to equipment to make everyday life easier (shower stool, ergonomic chair.) They have other services too. It may be a lack of communication, lack of knowledge from doctors or a cultural gap, but information is not easy to find or first handed, procedures are not well explained on these subjects.
I experienced only public services for doctors (terveysasema). And from my personal experience, I feel that the public medical sector isn’t really thought for disabled people. Normally, you don’t really have a doctor attributed to you, you go for a service. But in cases like mine (long and complicated history, several diagnosis), not seeing the same person each time makes things harder and delays proper monitoring.
Now, after almost two and half years, most of my “administrative tasks” are done. It took 1,5 years to obtain a Finnish disability card, but I received it for a longer period than in France. In my case, in France, it was always for 2 or 3 years, in Finland, they do it for 10 years. In the end, it may take longer than in my home country, but the results seem better! Things are not perfect, there are a lot of struggles to find good care, but patience is key.
Of course, doctors and administrations are not the whole life of a disabled person. From a personal perspective, my partner is my main moral support. He helps me with everyday tasks, and I thank him a lot for all he does. He’s not a Finn and doesn’t speak Finnish, so he feels powerless regarding my struggles with administrations, doctors, etc. We are both French, living abroad, and coming to Finland, where we’re considered as an intercultural couple didn’t change our relationship toward my disability. From my experience, the question of disability and how it’s treated in the couple isn’t linked to culture but to personal values.
I followed Finnish courses, online, because it was easier for me and allowed me to have all the accommodations I could need. The only time I tried to register for a physical course, I contacted the organization to know how accommodations could be made, and they just said they couldn't arrange anything.
How is everyday life in Helsinki for someone with physical disability? One of the good surprises when I arrived is that most public transportation is accessible, there is space and accessible ramps almost everywhere. Most of the time, you can find easy access parking, benches in public places (even in supermarkets). If you move in a wheelchair, sidewalks are wide and well maintained. So, generally, it’s easy to move in the city. It’s becoming harder when you want information about accessibility of private places. From my experience, we can see that the city is trying to be more accessible, but private places have still some work to do. It’s not unusual, you’ll see that in a lot of countries, but it’s more noticeable when other places are so accessible.
I didn't study in Finland to be able to give feedback on that. I followed Finnish courses, online, because it was easier for me and allowed me to have all the accommodations I could need. The only time I tried to register for a physical course, I contacted the organization to know how accommodations could be made, and they just said they couldn't arrange anything. My TE-counsellor was surprised by this response and Hilma as well, so I understand they should have been able to put accommodations in place. Thankfully (in a way), with the Corona virus situation, it was easy to find online classes and I didn’t push more with this organisation. The reason I’m talking about this experience is that even if everything seems to be accessible or open to accessibility, you still may encounter obstacles, and it’s better to be aware of them rather to be disappointed.
If I have to compare France and Finland in regard to disability and how it’s managed, I’ve got a better experience in Finland in general than in France. In France, cities are not thought to be accessible for everyone. They’re old and need to be re-think. In both countries, administrative procedures are complicated, long and energy consuming. Something for which I’m grateful in Finland is if you need some equipment to make you more autonomous in everyday life, the city can provide it. In France, you’ll have to pay for most of it, or it’s your employer’s responsibility. I feel like there is a real will to help people gain autonomy, to make life easier. And it’s appreciable. The difference of culture between the two countries is more visible and has an impact at this societal level. The way people with disabilities are seen and treated is different because of the global culture of the countries. And you can have a shock of culture from these differences when you’re a newcomer, disabled or not.
In conclusion, everyday life in Finland for a physically disabled person seems easier than in France, but when it comes to administration, it stays complicated. You must be patient and have energy because information is hard to get, especially in English. Processes are not really explained, and it feels like a struggle. When you don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture well and are alone, you’re facing a wall. I hope by sharing my experience that this wall will be smaller for others. And my partner and I would like to conclude by saying that even if it is hard, life is so enjoyable here that we’re happy to have chosen to move. My life can’t be summarized due to my disability and there are many positive things for my partner and I in living in Finland compared to before.
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