Shared Passion for Special Education

I was graciously invited to have lunch with Dr. Onerva Mäki, an unforgettable dynamic 89 year old, full of energy and laughter.  Currently, she sits on the board of Niilo Mäki Institute (NMI), as well as, being one of the founding members of NMI and the widow of Dr. Niilo Mäki, for which the institute was named after.  NMI is a well-known and respected dynamic multidisciplinary research and development institution for learning disabilities with highly committed researchers and practitioners in Finland.  I felt privileged to spend time with Dr. Mäki and hear about her passion for special education and her time as a special education teacher and instructor of teachers for the hearing and visually impaired and innovator of cerebral palsy in Finland, to name a few of her accomplishments.  

Among her vast list of accomplishments, I was delighted to discover that Dr. Mäki was a Fulbright alumni having participated in two Fulbright programs.  Dr. Mäki participated in the Fulbright Teacher grant from Finland to the United States for duration of six months in 1954-1955.  During her time in the United States she observed and learned from the latest special education experts, spent time in 28 states.  In 1962, she completed her second Fulbright, but this time as Leadership grant in Michigan and Chicago, researching the latest research at the time in traumatic brain injuries. There are remarkable stories of how the Fulbright program has changed an individual’s life; in this case, after her participation in Fulbright Teacher grant, Dr. Mäki transformed the landscape of special education here in Finland in regards to cerebral palsy.  Before her time in the United States, in Finland people with cerebral palsy were thought of as unable to learn or advance in any way.  Upon her return, she started the first cerebral palsy foundation and helped initiate the first cerebral palsy classroom.  Her participation in the Fulbright Teacher grant opened her to life-long professional and personal relationships that shaped how she views the world.  After the Fulbright, she returned to the United States on numerous different occasions to study, research and reconnect with friends. 

Another fascinating fact that she felt important to recognize and asked that I would share was how the funding for these Fulbright grants was obtained.  The funding was sponsored through ASLA (Amerikan Suomen Lainan Apuraha), which translates into Grant from America’s Loan to Finland.  During the 1930s United States provided aid relief to Finland and other European countries, after World War I, when there was a drastic food shortage, by selling food on a long-term credit.  In good faith Finland, steadily paid off the loan with interest and in 1949, having gained favor from the United States in 1949, but not having fully paid off the loan, the United States Congress approved a law that converted the loan payments to a special fund for grants for Finnish citizens to study and receive training in the United States  It was through this law that over 1,700 Finns have been able to study and research in the United States  I believe this is an important to Dr. Mäki, first to demonstrate her gratitude, but also to remind us of the importance of collaboration and the great impact they create.  

Dr. Mäki with all her accomplishments and knowledge has a relatable and humbleness about her.  She continues to create positive change and powerful impact in her community.  When I asked her, where her deep commitment and passion for special education come for, she answered that perhaps she had inherited it from her father, who instilled in her that she must use her power to help those who are in need, for those who are weaker than her.  As our time together ended, I asked for her advice to the younger generations, and spoken like a true teacher said, “It is good to be enthusiastic about your cause, but first you need to keep up with the latest research.  Do not start without research.  Do that which gives you satisfaction and you will see the opportunities come and you will be ready.”  

Text and photo: Mayra M. Molina, Fulbrigth Distinguished Award in Teaching 2016-2017