On a special mission

Riku Virtanen

Riku Virtanen  

Deepa Kurup

His aim is to learn disability-related conditions

BANGALORE: This 27-year-old lives alone in an apartment, 150 km away from family, participates in several training programmes, and his work allows him to indulge his travel lust. Riku Virtanen is a busy human rights lawyer, who says that he hardly gets time to sit down to his favourite game of chess.

Nothing extraordinary? Nothing, except for the fact that this tall, energetic and soft-spoken Finnish lad is visually and hearing impaired. “Holidaying” in India for a fortnight, Mr. Virtanen’s is interacting with several organisations and human rights activists to “learn and understand about disability-related conditions worldwide”.

Questions are keyed in for him to read on a Braille display, to which he replies in Finnish. He is so fast that his interpreters Jenni Kalio and Jenni Leppanen have trouble keeping up. These interpreters are provided to him by the Government of Finland, which extends to its citizens free interpreter services for an hour a day. While Mr. Virtanen wishes that the service hours are increased, he is aware that countries such as India have not even evolved such a system yet.

So, does lack of funds keep governments of developing countries from offering such services? “I don’t know about resources or what — we’ve never sent anything to the moon — but my country is doing it,” he says. He quickly points out that he doesn’t mean to be “ironic or offensive”, but simply wants to say that it is more about attitudes than resources. “Someone told me that if all the disabled people disappeared from Finland, it would make no difference to its budget. And it should be the same here.” He does not mean to downplay poverty, he adds, but it is more about involving the disabled in decision-making and society as a whole.

His work as a lawyer is more about developing laws, though he confesses (smilingly) that someday he would like to fight a case in court. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” he says unassumingly. Having fought his battles so far, what is the larger war that this young lawyer would like to wage? “It’s a hard question — about change!” “At a small level, when I enter a bank I wish the teller would address me instead of my interpreter,” he says, a mistake that this reporter must plead guilty to.

“Internationally, it is the approach that I would like to change.” Mr. Virtanen recently published a survey on CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). While pointing out that the U.S has refused to ratify this United Nations document, he questions the level of implementation among signatories. Mr. Virtanen interrupts to say that not all questions need to be about his “activism”. Granted. So, what is the one thing that this soft spoken young man is passionate about? Mr. Virtanen smiles as he confesses his penchant for collector’s editions of old Finnish Literature. “I know you’ll wonder why someone who can’t read would collect them. But people have all sorts of collections, coins, pocket knives and sticks. So why can’t people with disabilities have odd hobbies,” he remarks with a twinkle in his eye.

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