Paula Pietilä lives in Turku, Finland. She is the vice chairperson of the local independent living center in Turku and is involved in the Finnish independent living movement since the early 1990`s. In her daily life she works as a disability coordinator at the University of Turku, with the responsibility of counselling services for disabled students and for staff members. Developing the work of an accessible university is also an important part of her job.
What is your personal experience of disability?
I have been disabled since birth. I have cerebral palsy, which affects my mobility and motoric skills. I use a walker and wheelchair and I have two personal assistants, who help me at work and at home.
When did you first start your engagement with disability issues and why?
Well, the first time might had been in the 1970`s, when I was sitting under the table during the Circle of Mothers at the local cerebral palsy association and listened very carefully to all the conversations. Of course I didn`t understand anything, but I was there in any case!
It was in the early 1990`s, when I really became involved in the independent living movement for the first time. It was a coincidence really. I was reading my student calendar and noticed an advertisement for the association for disabled students. I had just begun my studies and moved away from home to the strange city and I hardly knew anyone. So I decided to go to the meeting of Threshold and see what happens!
Who has influenced you the most, and how?
I cannot mention just one person. There are actually quite a number of people, who have influenced me. They all have common characteristics; they have done and said things they believe in. They have had courage to think and do things differently than the majority of people. These people have been close to me, not just role models, who you look up to, but loving and caring persons who you could trust and who will help and support, if you need them.
Describe your present employment and even your past employment experience?
I work as a disability coordinator at the University of Turku. My main tasks are the counselling of students and applicants with disabilities and learning about problems and making recommendations for personal study arrangements, like extra time for exams.
I also develop general accessibility at the university in close cooperation with other staff members. This development work could include supervising so that the new buildings meet the accessibility norms or the planning of accessible services for students with dyslexia for example.
The job of disability coordinator is in fact my first job in the workplace. I have had short summer jobs and trainee sessions, when I was younger, but this is my first real job.
Was it difficult for you to find a job?
I was unemployed for six months after graduation, before I got my job. Of course it was mentally hard to make a dozen phone calls and fill out applications and all that waiting, I had told all my friends and acquaintances that my aim was to get a job. Then one day one of my friends phoned to me and told me about the project for disability coordinator at the University of Turku.
What qualifications did you need to get hired in your present position?
One had to have a master degree in higher education and experience in disability/accessibility issues. Good language skills were very useful, because I also work with international and exchange students with disabilities. It was also important to have good co-operation skills and to be capable of communicating with different kinds of people in different situations.
How would you describe your experience in being employed?
I would say that being employed has been the most empowering event in my life thus far. It opened up a whole new world for me. Work has given me self-esteem and satisfaction and also new experiences, which I could not get without a job.
What issues do you prioritise in your work with students?
I have learnt to prioritise face to face contacts, instead of just emails and phone calls. I hope that I have learnt to listen more and also emphasize the strengths of students, not just disabilities or challenges.
Of which achievement from employment are you most proud?
I am proud every time, when a student leaves my office and has gotten something new to put him or her back on track or leaves with a smile or relief in their face. This is difficult to explain, but it is not just giving to them. For me it is the opposite, I feel that they give something from themselves too.
What is your vision for the labour market for disabled persons at present and for the future?
To be honest the situation right now seems quite bad, when you think about the economic situation in the whole of Europe. On the other hand, the possibilities for inclusive education for person with disabilities has developed and this means, that the possibility to get a job for an individual is easier, but on the other hand, things change in society, like economics, and the social security system is getting weighed down.
What advice would you give to young disabled persons?
I would like to give the same advice that my old friend once gave to me: Work for those things that you think are the most important in your life. Be brave.