The understanding that all people have equal rights has been the basis for social changes, including those related to disability issues, in Poland.
Poland signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012, Belarus – in 2015. Not much of a difference in time, it may seem, yet as our Western neighbor has completed its 30 years of transformation prior to signing the document, Belarus is at the offset or at least the very first meters of this track. The practice of various countries (including Poland) in creating local programs to implement the Convention’s provisions is, nevertheless, relevant for Belarus. Within the framework of “Agenda 50” Campaign, drafting of local agendas has been initiated in five Belarusian towns (Stolin, Ščučyn, Lepiel, Babrujsk, Vałožyn). Polish TUS Foundation is one of the partners in the campaign. With the help of our colleagues, Belarusian stakeholders had an inspiring study visit to Poland last year. Representatives of TUS Foundation developed a “22 Steps” guide to help drafting local agendas in Belarus and now render consultations to representatives of local communities in five Belarusian towns that implement their projects within the framework of the campaign.
As Belarus begins its journey on the agenda road, “EuroBelarus” Information Service spoke with the representatives of TUS Foundation Piotr Todys and Małgorzata Peretiatkowicz about the Polish experience.
– Could you please tell us how the issue of inclusion appeared on the agenda in Poland?
Piotr: – In order to do that, we need to go thirty years back. The processes were not specifically initiated by someone, they were (and still are) taking place on their own. Work upon that issue began around 1989, when the influence of NGOs was growing and the transformation movement was taking place. We observed the appearance of a large number of organizations that dealt with issues related to persons with disabilities. If we talk about the formalization of these processes, a law was issued in late 1980s/early 1990s that regulated the sphere of employment and rehabilitation in persons with disabilities. These two aspects – formal and informal – should be considered the beginning of work on the issues related to persons with disabilities.
Piotr Todys. Photo by “EuroBelarus” Information Service
Małgorzata: – Notably, this was the result of the changes that were taking place in society and in the political system in Poland. The changes were built around a belief that each person equals all others in society, that all people have equal rights. We began to understand that people with disabilities could be employed by various organizations, not by enterprises or institutions created specifically for that purpose. We started saying that children should go to schools located closer to where they lived, not to special educational facilities. Persons with disabilities do not have special needs. Their needs do not differ from the needs of other people, which means they should be visible in the same space.
– How did the transformation in the sphere of disability launch in Poland and what were the difficulties it encountered?
Piotr: – During the pre-transformation period, you would rarely see persons with disabilities on the streets. They worked exclusively in “cooperatives of invalids” – such a name was used for this kind of enterprises at that time. Gosia mentioned the moment when people began to realize the equality of everyone’s rights – no such question was posed at that time and, even if the issue appeared, we did not know in what categories to discuss it. Similar changes were taking place literally in all spheres. Integrated schools appeared, followed by regular schools built upon the principle that children with various types of disabilities should attend them. Our Foundation initiated launch of special transport adjusted to the needs of persons with disabilities – something that had never existed before. A state rehabilitation structure appeared that controls employers who provide working places to persons with disabilities. When the ratio of persons with disabilities among people employed at an enterprise does not correspond to the established norm, employers are subject to a fine. The money collected through fines is further used to support persons with disabilities.
Organizations appeared that provided educational services to persons with disabilities, issued newspapers for them and about them; programs made by persons with disabilities appeared in the media. Finally, institutions of higher education started attending to the needs of persons with disabilities and ensuring conditions for them to study. All spheres were undergoing changes, so it is weird and even impossible to talk about persons with disabilities separately from the rest of the country.
Małgorzata: – Your question is about something that took place and is still taking place in our heads: we constantly analyze and reflect, we see our country change and develop. It had never occurred to us earlier that having separate work or study facilities was wrong or bad. This was the reality we could not influence. Later it turned out that we could form the elements of our society anew. Persons with disabilities range to 14% of our society, and they are one of the groups with the capacity to say or do something according to their needs.
Piotr: – It is difficult to give a general description now, because changes were taking place in the economic sphere, as well: many opportunities appeared for entrepreneurship or private businesses.
Małgorzata: – The opportunities that are available today and that were missing back then allow us literally anything: to go to private or public schools, study in a foreign language, etc. There is no need to come up with special, “spotted” opportunities for persons with disabilities, no. We need to create opportunities for everyone. Of course, the changes did not take place in a split second. The process took 30 years to happen. Still, everything remains in our minds and gives food for thought and reflection. Some people still think that persons with disabilities should not appear in public places.
Małgorzata Peretiatkowicz. Photo by “EuroBelarus” Information Service
– How did TUS Foundation influence the situation with the rights of persons with disabilities in Poland?
Piotr: – We have been working for 24 years. At the very beginning of our work, we ensured transport services to wheelchair users who could not move from one point in Warsaw to another on their own. This was innovative for Poland. Then we worked with other issues. Until now, we have been helping people looking for jobs. Generally, we aspire to broaden their understanding of what they want to do and in which areas. We have developed a search engine for persons with all categories of disabilities that helps them find shops or points of interest in their locations. We also work with people who, in turn, work with persons with disabilities. We organize various kinds of educational and training activities for them. Lately, we have been working in schools a lot: we explain problems of persons with disabilities to children and give them an opportunity to meet. We really hope that the scale of this work continues to grow, but now we work only in Warsaw.
We also drafted an alternative report on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Poland. TUS Foundation is a member of a Social Dialogue Commission in the government, a co-organizer of the Congress of Persons with Disabilities in Poland and a member of an international anti-discrimination coalition. We work a lot with local authorities in the area of strategic planning which, in fact, is very similar to what we do in the five Belarusian towns.
This article was created within the framework of “Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Agenda for Belarus (Agenda 50)” international project.