People with disabilities have been occupying the Polish parliament since 38 days to protest the lack of institutional support. They don't want to be treated as second-class citizens anymore. PiS has locked them away from the outside world – the access to the Parliament has been heavily restricted, and they have been hidden by a thick grey curtain
On the 24th of May the security of the Parliament used physical violence against the protesting mothers, who were trying to put up a transparent in English saying “Polish children with disabilities are begging for dignity”. They have also been separated with a thick, grey curtain from the rest of the Parliament – so the world doesn’t see them.
Here is what you need to know about their protest.
Kinga Jochymek, Alicja’s daughter, suffers from microcephaly. Except for physiotheraphy, the only thing that helps her are massages stimulating her brain, twice a week. Those massages alone cost 600 zł/week. Kinga is also treated with Tomatis therapy, which costs 1000 zł/10 days. All together Alicja spends 2000 zł monthly for her daughter’s therapy. On top of that she has to pay for Kinga’s medicines, the roof above their heads and something to eat. Every month she faces a tragic dilemma – they have to give up something so they don’t end up bankrupt.
On top of that, most caretakers of children with disabilities are single mothers. “It’s cruel, but I understand why fathers of disabled children leave their families. They feel helpless, when they think of the future of their children. This perspective can be extremely frightening. When you take care of a child with disability, every aspect of your life is subordinated to that” – says Karolina.
Marzena Stanewicz, mother of two disabled daughters: “We live a difficult and terrifying life. I know I have to sacrifice all my life for my child. My motherhood will never end. Usually women take care of their children until they reach adulthood, and when they become independent, women get a second life. She can still be a mother and grandmother, but it is not the sole purpose of her life. I will never be able to let my children go”.
1. Why are they protesting?
The institutional support for the families of disabled children in Poland is minimal.
What can you count on if you are a parent or a caretaker of a disabled person, who is completely dependent on your care?
- If you give up work, i.e do not receive any salary, you receive 1407 zł/month of care allowance (around 350 euros);
- All disabled children – even if their caretakers continue working – receive 153 zł/month of „extra care allowance” (around 39 euros)
- Each person that was born disabled or became disabled as a child or a student receives 774 zł/month of social benefit (around 185 euros) once they reach adulthood
The situation often gets more dramatic after a disabled child turns 18. After that, he or she is entitled only to the social benefit of 185 euros and the „extra care allowance” of 39 euros – but their disability does not go away. They no longer receive any family benefits, such as „500 Plus” or “For Life”, as the system was designed to support only children up to 18 years old. Their caretakers are still unable to take on a full-time job, because taking care of their adult children is a full-time job in itself. „We are here to be the voice of our children. They are blind, handicapped, trapped in wheelchairs. They cannot go on the streets to protest. During our protest in 2014 Jaroslaw Kaczynski [leader of the ruling PiS party, at the time in the political opposition) came and was kissing our hands, promising to change our situation. And today? Today we are completely alone” – said Iwona Hartwich, mother of 25-year-old disabled Jakub and one of the organisers of the protest.
In 2014 Polish Constitutional Tribunal deemed the law regulating benefits for disabled children unconstitutional. The reason being that the law divides people with disabilities into different groups depending on when the disability happened. However until today the rules remain unchanged – which is even more surprising considering the fact that it was PiS, who appealed to the Constitutional Tribunal against the law regulating benefits for the disabled. Polish Ombudsman, Adam Bodnar repeatedly spoked out in defense of disabled children and their families. There is also an international document – facultative protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which could help disabled people and their families in Poland fight for their rights. However, Poland refused to ratify it, because… it could change the laws regulating abortion and marriages between people with physical and mental disabilities.
2. What are their demands?
There are two priority demands:
- extra 500 zł (120 euros) monthly for those with severe disabilities, incapable of independent existence after the age of 18;
- increase the social allowance to the sum of lowest allowance of Polish Social Insurance Institution for those permanently unable to work, and then gradually increase it to the social minimum, calculated for a household with a disabled person.
During their protest the government agreed to one of the demands: the social allowance has been increased up to 1030 zł/month from September 2018 on. This is not very costly for the state budget – it will cost around 550 mln zł/year (around 138 mln euros). But the government is not willing to consider the demand about physical rehabilitation allowance, which is crucial for the protesters.
3. What is the position of the government?
This protest has hit the government hard – it has revealed that the declared “pro-social” attitude of PiS is not backed by many actual changes in policies or regulations, even for the most vulnerable members of the society. In consequence, the government has started a counter-offensive against the protesters to neutralize an overwhelming social support for parents of children with disabilities. The strategy is following: disinformation, isolation and verbal aggression. Moreover, on the 24th of May the security of the Parliament used physical violence against the protesting mothers, who were trying to put up a transparent saying “Polish children with disabilities are begging for dignity”.
The government is using the complex nature of social insurance system to manipulate the numbers and discredit the demands of the protesters. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki claims, the families of people with disabilities used to receive 2000 zl/month, and now they are receiving 3000 zł/month. That is not true: the smallest group of those that receive all three of the above-mentioned benefits get mere 2400 zł/month (around 600 euros). A vast majority of people with disabilities and their families get less support – some receive only the tiny “extra care allowance” of 153 zl/month (around 39 euros). In the case of the most “privileged” families, including those occupying the Polish parliament, this amount will reach 2547 zł/month in the end of 2018 (around 636 euros), as compared with 1996 zł in 2015. This is an increase of 28 percent, as opposed to the claim of the prime minister, that the sum has been augmented by 50 percent.
Members of the government also have stated numerous times that the demands of the protesters have already been met – and so their protest is pointless. Instead of the “rehabilitation allowance” minister Rafalska suggested different discounts for medical equipment and access to specialised doctors and medical services without queuing.
The government has calculated that its proposition costs 520 zł/month – nobody knows how these calculations were made, and how it would be financed – as the National Health Service, which would be charged with it, is already heavily indebted.
Since the beginning of the protest, the government has tried to portray the protesters as a small and isolated fraction of the community of people with disabilities. When it became clear that the agreement was impossible to reach, minister Elzbieta Rafalska announced to the media that she has reached an agreement – but with somebody else, Consultative Council of People with Disabilities, an expert body affiliated with the government.
The government has also been trying to isolate the protesters literally speaking – in other words, so they would be left completely alone in the occupied Parliament. On the 25thof April the access to the Parliament has been heavily restricted – the daily passes, used by journalists, experts and tourists were no longer issued. This is an unconstitutional and unlawful restriction of the freedom of press and access to information – OKO.press has intervened
The Polish Constitution allows the restriction of access to the Parliament – but according to art. 31 it has to be justified by safety reasons and proportional. The safety argument has been picked up by the government – which brings us to the next point.
- Verbal aggression
The most shocking aspect of government’s response has been the extremely high level of verbal aggression directed at the protesters. MPs and members of government have insulted people with disabilities and their families; they stated that the protest is actually political in its nature and aims at overthrowing the government (MP Stanisław Pięta); claimed that the parents are using their children as “live ammunition” (MP Jacek Żalek); suggested that keeping their children in the Parliament is cruel (MP Bernadeta Krynicka) and that it is a high cost for the taxpayers (marszałek Kuchcinski); and even stated that because of the protesters “there is an extremely bad smell in the Parliament” (MP Krystyna Pawlowicz).