So who is this woman? Teacher, speech-language therapist, advocate, researcher, Fulbrighter, visionary...all of these words capture only a small piece of her. As a young woman, Onerva studied education. She worked in a school in Helsinki that worked with students with physical disabilities. Even as a new teacher, she knew that these students needed more...more support, more rights, better education. She sought support by applying for a Fulbright scholarship, which she was awarded. While her school initially resisted letting her leave to study in America, she understood the importance of the opportunity. Not one to back down, even as a young woman in the 1950s, she succeeded in convincing her school of the value of seeking new information to improve the lives of her students. She set off from Finland by boat and traveled for many weeks. That year, she spent Christmas on the boat. She arrived in New York by herself with a small amount of luggage and the chest x-ray required to enter New York City. From there, she traveled to Philadelphia where she studied at a well known school for children with physical disabilities. When she returned to Helsinki, she founded the first classroom for students with cerebral palsy.
In the 1960s, Onerva moved to Jyväskylä. She opened the first speech-language therapy clinic in the city and also worked as a lecturer at the University of Jyväskylä. She specialized in speech-language impairments, cerebral palsy, and hearing and visual impairments and trained generations of teachers in the area of special education. She continued her mission to improve special education, even in far away places, establishing training programs for teachers in several African nations. The programs that she established there continue to this day and continue to impact countless children with special needs.
Outside of her own classroom, Onerva worked towards changing attitudes and misconceptions about people with disabilities. She strongly believed in equatable treatment for all people and did not hesitate to voice her opinion and serve as an advocate for those that society cast off. In one small example, people with physical disabilities were not admitted into teacher training programs in Finland. Working behind the scenes, Onerva succeeded in changing this policy and opened the doors to equality for people with disabilities.
Since retiring as a lecturer, Onerva continues to play an active role at the Niilo Mäki Foundation and Institute (named for her late husband, also a pioneer in special education topics). She has also been instrumental in the development of the Valteri Onerva School (appropriately named in her honor) an incredible special education school that I had the chance to visit a few weeks ago.
Onerva has dedicated her life to improving education, accessibility, and equality for individuals with disabilities. She was unafraid to use her voice to influence change, sometimes in the face of strong resistance and long standing negative attitudes about disability. Onerva is a rich part of our past, but she is also our future. She is our future in the countless students that have received special education services around the world and all that they have gone on to accomplish. She is our future in the teachers that she has trained. She is our future in those of us she has inspired.
Onerva Mäki blazed a trail, and in some small way I hope to follow it. I want to always continue to learn, and to ask not just the easy questions, but the hard ones too. I want to work towards change when change is needed. I want to handle adversity and conflict with strength and grace and utter determination, and not take things personally. I want to be a voice next to the voices of people with disabilities. I want to be a positive force in the life of a child.
Thanks for the inspiration, Mama Mäki. I hope to make you proud.