You can hide the protesters, but you won’t hide your disgrace.

You can hide the protesters, but you won’t hide your disgrace.

It’s been a year since the 40-day protest of people with disabilities and their parents in the hallway of the Polish Parliament. Here is a memory from those important days…

Warsaw, 26th May 2018, Mother’s Day

On Saturday 26th May, 400 delegates of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly will meet for a day-two working session in the Polish Parliament. Right next to the meeting rooms of NATO, on the floors of the parliamentary hallway, 14 protesters with disabilities and their carers will continue day 39 of their civil protest. Yet the international guests won’t see the protesters. A day before the meeting, on Thursday, parliamentary marshall has ordered to close-off their area of protest from the rest of the building and hide the protesters behind… a fabric curtain.

Why are they protesting?

The protest of people with disabilities and their carers started a month ago, on 28th of April. From the very start they had two key demands: 

  1. An increase of the disability living allowance from 204 Euro (878 zł) to 242 Euro (1,043 zł) 
  2. Introduction of a physiotherapy benefit for the disabled, incapable of an independent existence after reaching the age of 18, in the amount of 116 Euro/month (500 zł) – with no income criteria. 116 Euro equates to about 25 percent of the minimal wage in Poland.

So far only the first of the two demands has been met by the government. The proposal to meet the second demand with a limited set of care products and services has been rejected by the protesters. 

In reality, the protesters could be asking for a lot more. In Poland the maximum sum of benefits for a carer (usually a mother) with a disabled child amounts to 533 Euro/month (2,300 zł), and equates to 46% of the average gross income. To secure the benefits the carer is not allowed to take up any additional job. The maximum sum of benefits for an adult with disability AND their carer (usually still the mother) amounts to 398 Euro/month (1,716 zł, 35% of the average gross income). Here, again, to secure the full benefit the career is prohibited from taking up any additional source of income. To put it in a context: a pair of orthopaedic shoes costs 139 Euro. A month of physiotherapy for a patient with cerebral palsy – 347 Euro. With such a limited state support, people with severe disabilities and their carers have no other option but to rely on other family members, worst case – resort to poverty-ridden care homes to provide for their basic needs.

But it gets worse still. In 2014 the back-then opposition party Law And Justice (PIS) brought a claim to Constitutional Tribunal against the legislation which varied disability allowance depending on the age at which the disability was acquired.  The leader of the opposition, Jaroslaw Kaczynski met with the first wave of protesters on several occasions, reassuring about his party’s support and promising solutions for the post-electoral future. In October 2014 the Tribunal upheld the claim and ordered to equalise the allowance. The then-ruling coalition of Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) negotiated with the protesters over 14 days.  As a result, the coalition  set aside a budget reserve of 152 million Euro (656m zł) to gradually meet the demands (or else pay the court claims) and the protest was paused. In November 2015 Law and Justice won the parliamentary elections with an absolute majority and the decision power like no other government since 1989. 

Fast forward to April 2018. 

The ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal from 2014 has not been implemented and so the disability allowance still varies unjustly. The budget reserve set aside in 2015 by PO-PSL has been resolved and absorbed by PIS. With elections long over, people with disabilities and their carers have long been forgotten. Until 18th of April. 

„It is with deep worry and concern that we witness reports of mistreatment of the persons with disabilities that are protesting in the Polish Parliament since 18th April 2018. The conditions that are being forced upon the protesters are scandalous. They are in direct breach of their human rights and basic dignity! Such conditions include not allowing their carers to be with them, being suspended to go outside of the Parliament (including enclosing the area with a steel fence), and the police forbidding meeting with the public and high-profile figures such as Janina Ochojska, head of the Polish Humanitarian Action. The protestors cannot meet with their physiotherapists and they have one designated toilet which they can approach only with a designated path. Some of them have not left the Parliament for 40 days. They sleep on mattress in marble floors, with lights on for 24 hours. These conditions are inexcusable and they cannot continue for even a minute more. The treatment that they are being subject to is a clear affront to basic human rights and to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Poland signed and ratified. The Polish Parliament is not respecting basic human rights and the dignity of Persons with Disabilities.” – wrote Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum in an open letter to the high officials of the Polish government, European Parliament and the UN on 23. April. 

„There is hard to take odour in the main hallway”

After a number of visits from the government officials including the President and the Prime Minister, only one of the key demands has been met and resulted in an increase of the disability allowance by 38 Euro a month. It is however impossible to assign a value to the humiliation, manipulation and contempt the protesting families have faced from the PIS MPs and the government officials over their 39 days of the protest. „There is hard to take odour in the main hallway on the ground floor” – wrote PIS MP Krystyna Pawlowicz on her Twitter account. „A likelihood of an outburst of epidemic in Parliament” – said the senate marshall Stanisław Karczewski. „The disabled persons protest in an inappropriate place and are politically motivated” said the senior official of the Catholic Church in Poland archbishop Henryk Hozer. The state, ultraconservative and increasingly nationalistic, sends a clear signal to women: keep reproducing children, just make sure they are healthy, because we won’t support those who aren’t. Sounds brutal? That’s because PIS government is exactly that: brutal.

And then there is the NATO meeting, the fencing off and the curtains. All visitors to the parliament including press with long-term entry passes have been temporarily banned from the premises. Overnight from Friday to Saturday 26th May the guards proceed to unplug and take away cameras placed there to monitor the situation in agreements with the protesters. A mother who tried to hang a banner on a separating fabric curtain, has been forcefully stopped by the guards, her arm is bruised. „The intervention of the marshall guards was in line with law and procedures” says a press note released immediately after the incident. In Poland it is early hours of the Mother’s Day.

They are not alone. 

From the very first day of the protest, for 39 days so far, large groups of people gather outside the Parliament to provide moral support, but also food, water, physiotherapy and to raise awareness about what’s going on inside. Two organisations famous for stopping the ultimate ban on abortion in 2016: Polish Women on Strike and Warsaw Women on Strike lead the way – supported by a number of others. In a campus of tents pitched at the Parliament to „safeguard democracy”, there is a white board with the list of most urgent supplies:  water, bread, vitamins, shower-gel are needed most this weekend. A paralympic gold medallist Karolina Hamer is there daily, to support the protesters and motivate others to keep coming back day in, day out. Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, an independent MP who had invited the protesters into the Parliament in the first place, now helps with their washing and with their food supplies. There is something in the air, a sense of a change, an awakening. It’s the end of isolation for people with disabilities. The fabric curtains won’t hide them – just to the contrary. Just as they won’t hide the disgrace and the unforgiving lack of compassion from the Polish government officials. 

by Urszula Sara Zielińska

The final day of the protest, 27th May 2018