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Adult Late-Deafened in Finland:  Is Signing a Right or a Privilege?

Rosie Malezer
July 3, 2015

Is Signing a Right or a Privilege?


As a Deaf woman who was, until recently, a member of the Hearing community, I find it astounding as to how ignorant many professionals and everyday people can be towards Deaf people. Audiologists, lawyers, doctors, bar staff in Finland whom I have encountered automatically assume that if you are Deaf, you must only communicate with sign language. Yet how accessible is sign language education to late deafened people?

In Finland, you are only educated for free in Deaf languages at a young age , and only if you are Deaf. Those who lose their hearing after high school graduation age are required to pay a minimum of 4,000 to attend Finland's Deaf school which is located in Helsinki. Both Hearing and Deaf students are accepted into the school, which students reside at during week days, however you are only permitted to learn Finnish Sign Language, even if your mother tongue and only language of understanding is English. If you are Hearing, however, you are entitled to every language interpreter known to mankind. The Finnish Deaf Museum further shows how little Finland has done for the Deaf community.

The World Federation of the Deaf fights on a daily basis for the rights of Deaf people worldwide who face discrimination of any sort and who are not permitted access to education, health, interpreters and the ability to live their lives independently. Deafness is still seen, on many levels in the Hearing community, as a contagious disease. They do not understand the Deaf culture, language or even what it is to be Deaf.

Living on an income of just 500 per month, it is a mighty blow to a late deafened person who is then asked to pay almost one year's income to the government in order to -- one of the most common forms of sign language around the world -- just for the right to communicate, since learning the signed language in their own country is unaffordable to the average Deaf person. Their only alternative is to ask for a piece of paper (which scares many people) or to carry a whiteboard with them (which people refuse to use).

The United States of America provides free education to their Deaf citizens . It is unfortunate that other countries of the world do not follow suit. Deaf people have just as much to offer the world as those who can hear. The only difference is that Deaf people cannot hear. Can Deaf people communicate? Of course we can. So why are so many Hearing people afraid to communicate with us?

As an example, last week, I walked into a bar with my husband. A customer saw me signing to my husband (in ASL) and my husband signed back. The only reason we could communicate was that we undertook intensive ASL lessons online. Learning to communicate in Finland was not affordable at the time. I was lucky to be able to understand the customer. He signed AUSLAN (Australian Sign Language) to me, asking me if I was Deaf. I responded in ASL that I am Deaf and that my husband is Hearing. The bartender then said to the man, "It doesn't matter where you live in the world. All sign language is the same." This barman had obviously never learned to sign and knew nothing about the signing culture. It was disappointing. What was even more disappointing was what transpired when the waiter (who had witnessed our conversation) brought our food to the table. He placed my husband's food in front of him with a smile, before doing what I can only compare to a "hit and run" with my own food. The waiter slid the plate towards me, eyes open like a scared rabbit, and then ran away. It was like he was scared to catch "the Deaf" from me.

living in Finland). It was also easy for my husband to learn and it is now our sole method of communication. Due to the high cost of learning FinSL (Finnish Sign Language) in Finland, approximately half of the Finnish Deaf community know and use ASL but only behind closed doors at Deaf meetings each week. This comes directly from the Chairman of the Tampere Deaf Club. I am able to fluently converse with him and other Club members in ASL when we meet.

The Finnish government, however, frowns on members of the Deaf community using a non-Finnish sign language that they may not understand, regardless that English is one of the most widely used languages in the world. Most sites in Finland for the Deaf community are only provided in Finnish Sign Language and without subtitles . For somebody who was excluded from being able to access Finnish Deaf education, I find this act reprehensible. Subtitles are omitted so that if you cannot afford the outlandish fees of Deaf education, then you are not permitted to use services for the Deaf.

Then again, many places use automatic subtitles as they are too lazy and do not want to put in the effort for Closed Captions. This issue became a big highlight recently when a show was aired in UK regarding the brutality of Cochlear Implants. The subtitles for the Deaf, however, read "COP KILLER IMPLANTS." It did not take a genius to realise that the subtitles were automated.

From personal experience, I can say that the fight to have your rights respected as an able-bodied Deaf person is a hard one, but it is most definitely something worth fighting for. After almost one year of not being granted assistance from Finland's government in Deaf matters, I am now house-bound. Hearing people just don't understand the fight, yet they getting on a bus can be terrifying.

Soon after I lost my hearing completely, I climbed onto a bus, put my ticket on the scanner, was not able to hear if it beeped or not and was then completely humiliated in front of a bus full of passengers by the driver as he yelled at me and kicked me off the bus. Before this happened, I suffered from a mild form of Agoraphobia with Panic Disorder. Since the incident occurred, however, the only time I feel safe is indoors. All of this was brought about by a bus driver who did not care when told him (with my voice) that I was Deaf. He did not mind that I cried and was shamed. He had managed to bully a Deaf person and his day started just as splendidly as mine was horrific.

Many people are not aware that in the late 1800's, several countries around the world, including the United States , began sterilising people who they saw as "abnormal" or "unpleasing to the eye." This included the Deaf and blind population. Up until 30 years ago, Finland were still forcibly sterilising Deaf people on diagnosis. They saw Deafness as a defect and were terrified of what the offspring of two Deaf people would be like.

A lot of education has been needed just to get to where we are today, which sadly is not much of an improvement from the way we were treated 30 years ago. The only bonus now is that we are not forcibly sterilised. Instead, Deaf people in Finland are immediately put onto sickness benefits until their disability pension is granted one year later. We are automatically placed into the "too hard" basket, which is a tragedy in itself.

Deaf people are stronger and friendlier than many Hearing people. We are smart, artistic, educated, and we have something to say. Someday, the Hearing folks of the world will actually stop, listen and learn this fact. Until the prejudices are gone; until we are able to communicate with Hearing people without scaring them with our words, the walls that the Hearing world have put in place will remain.


Rosie Malezer is a profoundly Deaf, legally blind, Australian Aboriginal author, writer, blogger, and domestic violence survivor. She was born in 1971 in Queensland, Australia and is a proud member of the Gubbi Gubbi tribe. She is the author of "Change Your Name and Disappear" ( Learn more about Rosie at



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