Icelandic woman changes mindsets

22:51, Aug 20 2013
Sara Raider
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS: Disabled rights activist and MP Freyja Haraldsdottir says ‘‘many people were surprised that a disabled young woman was running for parliament’’.

A young Icelandic woman with connections to Richmond is breaking down barriers. Sally Kidson talks with disabled-rights activist and MP Freyja Haraldsdottir.

Freyja Haraldsdottir was born in Iceland with a condition colloquially known as glass bone disease.

"Right after I was born I was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta that means my bones are really fragile and break easily," she said.

"Even though this has had an impact on my life it has never controlled it, but my parents decided from the very beginning that I deserved to live my life to the fullest like anybody else."

For Miss Haraldsdottir living her life to the full has meant graduating dux of her college, completing a bachelor of arts degree and this year she spent a week as a deputy MP in Iceland's parliament.

"I am a really active, social and outgoing person who enjoys life the most when keeping a bit too busy and surrounded by a lot of people. I am very determined [a control freak some would say] and love challenges and projects that are complicated and claim hard work and effort."


The 27-year-old disability rights activist became interested in politics and social change after running for the constitutional council in 2010. She was elected as one of the 24 people to change and update the Icelandic constitution.

"Through that work I learnt an awful lot about how our society is built up and realised that I was really interested in various things linked to politics and social change."

This year she was elected as a deputy MP in Iceland as part of the Bright Future party. When politician Gudmundur Steingrimsson is absent she steps in. She spent her first week in parliament in July. It was an experience she enjoyed.

"I felt that many people were surprised that a disabled young woman was running for parliament and this first week there I felt many people didn't expect much of me and were astonished that I had opinions and knowledge on other things then disability issues," she said.

She said she also found it "quite funny" that some parliamentarians, mostly men, were very concerned that she might find parliament's long working hours and work load difficult and tiring.

"They obviously did not realise that I direct a company on a daily basis, have a huge workload and time pressure and often work very long hours. But that's not expected of a disabled person."

Miss Haraldsdottir's father, Haraldur Arnason, works for a company called Hampidjan. The company started a branch in Nelson in 1997 and the family moved to Nelson when she was 11.

They lived in Richmond and she attended Henley School and then Waimea Intermediate.

"When I think of the time I lived in New Zealand a smile comes to my face and warmth grows up in my heart. I have wonderful memories from New Zealand; my great schools that welcomed me and made my [stay] feel like home, my extraordinary teachers who cheered me on, believed in me and focused on my abilities and strengths and my classmates who many became good friends and stood by me all the way.

"Memories of travelling around the country and getting to know the culture I really cherish as well as so many moments that is hard to describe in words."

Her youngest brother, Bjargar, was born in New Zealand and she said the country would always be in her mind and she hoped to visit or live in Aotearoa again.

Miss Haraldsdottir said she did not plan to work as an MP. As a human rights activist she wanted to be objective and not tied to a party because of the need to work with all political parties.

"Also I have never liked the way we do politics in Iceland since a lot of energy is put into parties fighting each other and trying to degrade one another instead of trying to work together and use different perspectives to come to the best conclusion possible for our country and people."

However, two years ago she met Mr Steingrimsson who chaired a committee on consumer controlled personal assistance. This is a system where an individual with needs has a personal assistant to support them achieve their goals in a way that allows them to live with dignity, independent of others and able to participate fully in the community.

It is a cause close to her heart as she is the director of a co-operative that fights for personal assistance for disabled people.

Working with Mr Steingrimsson she met a politician for the first time who listened more than he spoke and who showed genuine interest in disabled people's experiences.

At the same time he was setting up the party with another politician Heida Kristin Helgadottir. Better Future party is a green, liberal, human rights party.

Miss Haraldsdottir said it was a big decision to run for parliament but she decided it was time for a disabled activist to become a politician.

Parliament was not set up well to deal with a disabled representative and the main challenges she faced were a lack of accessibility.

It was difficult to find a seat that was suitable for her wheelchair and unlike other politicians she had to give a speech from her seat as the rostrum was inaccessible.

There were also other places in parliament like meeting rooms she could not access.

"This is, of course, not acceptable in a country that is developed and looks at itself as a role model for others when it comes to human rights issues and equality. They are making changes on the rostrum but in my opinion that is not enough. A disabled person should be able to access all parts of a country's parliament building easily."

She did not believe a country could talk about democracy, inclusion and equality where disabled people were not expected to enter politics and be elected or hired to high-level positions in a society.

"I think it is quite sad that to start making changes in the chamber I needed to run for election and become a vice MP."

She believed Iceland was very much behind when it came to the rights of disabled people.

"Lack of accessibility and appropriate assistance is a huge problem that leads to exclusion and difficulties with full participation. The system is in many ways complicated and hard to work in, people lack information on their rights and opportunities. The media still presents disabled people either as heroes or victims and not as ordinary citizens and that leads to discriminative attitudes that sometimes ends up in dehumanising behaviour towards disabled people."

She was not up to date with the scene for disabled people in New Zealand but said when she lived in New Zealand she felt less disabled than she did in Iceland because attitudes were more positive and accessibility was mostly better.

She was grateful to everyone in New Zealand, fellow students, teachers and schools "who made me feel so welcome".