Associations begin to play an active role
In Finland, deaf people were the first group of people defined as people with sensory disabilities to set up their own associations in the late 19th century. At the same time, associations were assuming a more active role in society and, for example, the first workers’ associations began operations. Similarly to workers’ associations, the deaf associations were aimed at improving their members’ status in society. Therefore, the associations were first and foremost advocacy groups that opened up a whole new world for deaf people. Charity organisations were also founded in the late 19th century. One of these organisations was the Kuuromykkäin Auttajayhdistys (Assistance of Deaf-Mutes), founded in 1897 by hearing people.
In connection when referring to the history of deaf associations, a story of meetings at the home of the deaf teacher Fritz Hirn and his wife Maria is often mentioned. Deaf people from the Turku region would often gather at the Hirns, mainly to converse in sign language and discuss matters that were important to deaf people. When deaf visitors from the countryside arrived in Turku, the Hirns offered them a place to stay. Fritz Hirn had contacts with Swedish teachers and active association members. In the 1870s, he had learned about the activities in the Swedish associations and local activists had encouraged him to set up an association in Finland. Because an increasing number of pupils graduated from the Turku school for the deaf and Hirn hoped to achieve a quieter home life, he decided to arrange a meeting to organise an association. The rules of the association were approved in 1886, stating that the goal of the association was to promote its members’ social, educational and judicial status.
The story of the association founded in Helsinki in 1895 is similar to that of the Turku association. In the 1890s, a small circle of acquaintances began to gather regularly in the home of Valter Stadius. Helsinki did not have its own school for the deaf but former pupils from the schools in Porvoo and Turku had moved to the town. People had become aware of the association’s activities in Turku and wondered whether the same was possible in Helsinki. When the sculptor Albert Tallroth moved to Helsinki, the project gained a new primus motor. Tallroth proved an active promoter of deaf associations, and it was partly thanks to him that Tampere and Vaasa got their own associations. The first chairman of the association was the Hirns’ hearing son, Julius, who worked as a journalist in Helsinki.
The early activities of the Helsinki association are a fitting example of the significance of such associations. The main activity was Sunday school, arranged to plug a hole left by insufficient schooling given to deaf pupils. It also offered more informal entertainment, such as pantomime performances and nature trips. Sewing and sports clubs also operated as part of the association. Money was collected for the poor by establishing a sickness fund using money from evening events.