Last month Access Press talked about the state of disability rights in Poland. In this month’s Part 2 we look at a specific example of efforts underway in that country.
“Fuga Mundi” is a Latin term for “Escape From the World.” Ancient philosophers coined the term thousands of years ago to describe when people went off to contemplate who they were in the grand scheme of things. That is why the term has been reanimated as the name of an organization in Poland that is educating people about the issues faced by people with disabilities in Poland. The leaders of the organization created it because of what they didn’t see anyone else doing in their country.
The Fuga Mundi Foundation’s creator, Marek Piasecki, is a modern-day hero in the truest sense. Piasecki, who is paraplegic, started his organization three years ago with the help of friends in response to what they didn’t see around them when it came to support mechanisms and efforts on behalf of people with disabilities in Poland. Piasecki himself makes no money at what he does, but is doing it because it is something that he and his wife, a physical therapist with two jobs, truly believe in.
“It was incredibly energizing for me to see the amount of passion and time people put in to advance the cause of people with disabilities in their country for little or no wages,” commented John Tschida, the director of Public Policy and Research at Courage Center. Tschida visited Poland for two weeks in November and December after a group of Polish nonprofit organizations (called Non-Governmental Organizations, or NGOs, in Poland) invited and paid for him to visit them and educate other NGOs and government and business leaders in Poland about changing public policy.
The situation for people with disabilities in Poland today can be compared to that faced by people with disabilities 50 years ago in the United States. Advocates in Poland are fighting to integrate children with disabilities into the public school system, and face blatant discrimination fueled by a religious belief system dictating that people with disabilities and/or their families must have done something to deserve the disability. They are also fighting an infrastructure that makes accessibility almost impossible, particularly for people in wheelchairs.
Piasecki’s goals are to offer thorough rehabilitation services to disabled people in Poland through information and assistance, individual material and financial support, educational courses, and the construction of a rehabilitation and recreation center for people with disabilities. The center will provide training facilities as well as a community center similar to the Center for Independent living here in the Twin Cities.
Piasecki has been successful at acquiring money from state funds by talking to government officials about the daunting issues faced by people with disabilities in Poland. He is struggling to educate the work force, businesses, and government about how people with disabilities can benefit them. Most important of all, Piasecki wants to shatter the viewpoint that people with disabilities are a population that should be maintained through government checks or seen as wards of the state.
Piasecki and other advocates’ biggest obstacle, said Tschida, is history itself. He said there are very low societal expectations for people with disabilities in Poland, among politicians, business leaders, and people with disabilities themselves.
“There is a local colloquialism in Poland that you can do anything ‘for’ someone, but not ‘with’ someone,” he said, meaning there are problems in the country with people and organizations working as teams to achieve results. “Although this is changing, they need to do a better job,” said Tschida. “The situation in Poland is not without a silver lining,” he added, pointing out that many new buildings are accessible, and there are highly placed and influential public officials with disabilities. Organizations are starting to come together to combine their political clout and have a greater effect on changing policy. Ironically, he said, ““The Polish Constitution recognizes people with disabilities in ways ours doesn’t.” Tschida learned that the state rehabilitation fund has also swelled with direct appropriations and money derived from fines levied against businesses, and it pays for many of the same things the state rehabilitation organizations here pay for, including education, training, and computers. “While you can argue the merits of some of these ‘benefits’ they do at least point to a greater recognition of the disabled,” he said.
The evolution that will bring about change in Poland for people with disabilities will be a step-by-step process, said Tschida. He predicts people with disabilities in Poland will witness greater changes over the following decade than ever before.