The Punk Syndrome

Minna Pietikäinen, M.Scs.

Over the last few years, people with intellectual disabilities (ID) and their rights have gained increasing attention in Finnish media. For example, the leading Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat has in some editorials raised the issue of deficiencies in the living arrangements of people with ID.

Despite more recent de-institutionalization, Finland still has the highest proportion of institutionalized people in Scandinavia (Pelto-Huikko, Kaakinen & Ohtonen, 2008). Medical knowledge may often be taken for granted when describing people with ID. As Seppälä (2010) states, until the 1980s people with intellectual disabilities were studied within institutions and research about them today may still contain bias caused by diagnostic overshadowing. When a person is diagnosed as disabled, these expectancies may affect the observations that are subsequently made. In this context, the position of a patient in an institution is offered to the intellectually disabled person, and other kinds of subjectivities are denied.

In connection with this discussion, I focus here on the media accounts of a Finnish punk band called Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät(PKN) Being the first band of intellectually disabled musicians to become popular among the public, the band has received considerable media attention. An award-winning documentary film (The Punk Syndrome, 2012) was also made about the band.

In the lyrics of their song Kallioon [To Kallio], the band criticizes not only life in institutions, but also life in the group homes. ‘’I don’t want to live in any group home, I don’t want to live in an institution, I want to live in Kallio… I want some respect, human dignity in life…’’ (PKN: Kallioon. Translation from Finnish: mine). The song was uploaded in YouTube-website in 2009, three years before it was released on a studio album (Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, 2012).

As Fairclough (1995) states, mass media can influence knowledge, beliefs, social relationships and social identities.Thus, visibility in the media may alter readers’ attitudes towards people with ID.  Increasing availability of the internet has enabled people with ID to participate and to be heard.

Based an empirical analysis, those commenting on the song Kallioon on YouTube website (n=148) were not referring to the song or the band only but also to disability and the position of intellectually disabled people in general. The commenters were replying to the demand of equality expressed in the song Kallioon either by defending it on the basis of human rights, or by opposing it, based on assumed incapability of the intellectually disabled.

Many of the YouTube comments contained features from contradictory discourses. Even though many commenters were aware of the norm of equality, the discourses of medicine and the discourse of ability to function were hegemonic because, after all, the writers were using them in commentaries about a song. The fact that they used these discourses in the context of punk music indicates that these discourses are naturalized and widespread in society. However, some of the commenters positioned PKN as a punk band, not as a group of disabled.

All the analyzed newspaper articles (n=13) about the band, published in Finnish media between 2009 and spring 2012, mentioned the category of intellectually disabled. However, no writers used the discourse of medicine. Particularly in the later articles after the premiere of the documentary, The Punk Syndrome (2012), the writers attempted to see the individuals behind the categories.

I suggest that the case of PKN can potentially change the shared understanding of intellectual disability, or of punk.

Note: This blog entry is based on my master’s thesis that examined discourses of intellectual disability.


Fairclough, Norman (1995). Media Discourse. London: Edward Arnold.

Pelto-Huikko, A., Kaakinen, J. & Ohtonen, J. (2008). Kehitysvammaisten laitoshoidon hajauttamisen seurantaraportti ”Saattaen muutettava” (Sosiaali- ja terveysministeriön selvityksiä 2008:29) [Follow-up study the of de-institutionalization of the care of the intellectually disabled. The Social and Health Ministry, 2008:29]. Helsinki: University Press.

Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (2012). Kaksi kuppia kahvia ja yksi kokis [two cups of coffee and one coke] [CD]. Airiston punk-levyt.

Seppälä, H. (2010). Hoivan ja asumisen välimaastossa. Pohdintoja kehitysvammaisuuden kaksista kasvoista [Between care and living. Reflections on the two faces of intellectual disability]. In A. Teittinen (ed.), [pois laitoksista!] vammaiset ja hoivan politiikka [Away from institutions. The disabled and the politics of care], pp. 180-198. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.