Explore More »

Leaving the Ghetto: Learning to Embrace Physical Disabilities in the Polish Labor Market

Laden with loss, her swollen eyelids strain to close. They tremble slightly. Such shaking is just the residue of another attempt to shut away years of discrimination. In spite of her efforts – or perhaps because of them – Emilia Malinowska’s gaze is fierce, possessing a sense of ownership that seems to claim everything upon which it falls. Her confidence is unnerving. Yet, at the same time, her words suggest immense frustration with the space she occupies in this world. “Even though I have an education, a degree, I work, I live on my own in a normal flat; even in this situation, when I go out on the street, I am always treated like a disabled person, like somebody different. I feel disabled, because I look different. And in this aspect I am disabled – because my body is disabled, but my life is not disabled. I don’t feel disabled in life.”  Despite Emilia’s contagious optimism, the discrimination and isolation she goes on to describe are painfully disheartening. Even more demoralizing, however, is the knowledge that her experience is anything but a “unique” case. She is far from alone. 

In fact, there are approximately 5.5 million persons with disabilities in Poland,”  the vast majority of whom suffer comparably egregious prejudice in various aspects of both their daily and professional lives. While access to education has considerably improved in the past decade, possibilities for employment of people with disabilities remain appallingly limited – and sometimes even degrading. A recent report issued by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that “less than one in five disabled persons are employed in Poland, and those who are employed tend to have part-time or temporary jobs in sheltered work enterprises.”  This figure, when compared to the 50% employment rate of people with disabilities in the United Kingdom or the 42% employment rate in Slovakia, confirms that Poland is indeed lagging far behind in the European Union’s effort to fully integrate people with disabilities into larger society.  

For far too long, the Polish government neglected to address the deprivation of employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The vulnerable rights of this often-marginalized population were never concretely defined, let alone enforced.  As a result, the obstacles and stereotypes hindering people with disabilities greatly worsened. In the past decade, however, a surge in the development of non-governmental organizations has begun to reverse this downward trend. Indeed, these NGOs, devoted exclusively to the articulation and protection of the rights of people with disabilities, are growing increasingly organized and influential in lobbying the Polish government. 

In addition to the heightened efficacy of NGO activity, certain demographic factors are exerting tremendous pressure upon Poland to better integrate all Polish citizens into society – and thus, into the workforce as well. “We have a serious demographic problem in Poland,” declares Anna Darska, Ambassador to the United Nations Development Program, “In a few years, we will be out of people ready to work. People who are professionally inactive at the moment will be our only chance in the future. Professional solicitation of people with disabilities is not only a social obligation; it has become an economic necessity."  Through this rare but precious union of human rights, social integration, and financial pressure, Poland has arrived at a point where the government can no longer choose to ignore the now roaring clamors for justice and equality. For the first time, Poland must ask herself: what is the Polish reality for people with disabilities, and are there prospects for change in the future? 

Communism: A Legacy of Invisibility 

An evaluation of the current Polish reality is baffling: its treatment of people with disabilities stands in such stark contrast to that in most other European Union countries. To what can this distinctness be attributed? Most would argue – and rightfully so – that Poland has undergone tremendous transformations both prior to and since its accession to the European Union. Why is it, then, that Poland cannot keep up when it comes to employing people with disabilities?  

“Because we had the communist system for many years, we have a different mentality from other countries in Europe,” Emilia asserts, as she lets out a disgruntled sigh. “This is why disabled people are seen the way that they are seen now. A lot of stereotypes and social fears come from that time.”  Perhaps the most prominent among these stereotypes is the need to remove inwalidzi, or “invalids” from the larger society - or to ensure that they remain on the periphery, at the very least. Indeed, the communist ideology promoted a reverence of the healthy, fully able-bodied worker. All those individuals who contradicted this archetype by displaying any type of disability or “defect” were immediately removed from the general population.  “Before 1989, disabled people didn’t exist. We had no disabled people in Poland,” Emilia adds, sarcastically. The absence of public facilitates and assistance, compounded by the intense societal prejudice against their disabilities, left this persecuted group with two disturbing options: to remain perpetually confined to the boundaries of their homes, or to become “working prisoners,” of sorts, trapped instead in a spółdzielnia inwalidów, or an invalid cooperative. These were specialized workplaces where handicapped individuals were entirely isolated from society and grouped together to take part in simple, mindless physical activities such as brush-making. While publicized as beneficial and even generous venues for inwalidzi, such workshops actually functioned as “special ghetto factories.” These ghettos served to perpetuate the communist vision of an ideal society that, ostensibly, consisted solely of competent, able-bodied workers. And so was bequeathed to Polish citizens with disabilities a legacy of isolation and invisibility – an inheritance that, in many ways, remains to this very day. 

The lack of visibility of disabilities promoted by the communist mentality had huge implications on perceptions of the role of “the disabled” in Polish society. Piotr Pawłowski, founder of the disability rights organization, “Integracja,” aptly describes part of the problem: “Society did not understand how people with disabilities lived. People still see them in the same way as under Communist rule – inactive people, staying home virtually all their lives, and receiving minimal state pensions.”  Nowhere in this unfair portrait of the lives of people with disabilities was there space for education, employment, or even love and family. It was simply assumed that people with disabilities would live their lives in a way that was fundamentally distinct from the manner in which a person without disabilities would. According to this model, then, individuals with disabilities do not go to school, they do not pursue employment, they do not have partners, start a family or even have a sexuality. “A disabled girl is not brought up to be a woman,” Emilia described angrily. “She is not considered to be a future worker, wife, or an adult in general. Disabled people, especially women, are treated like big children throughout their entire lives.”  Here, as in many other instances, a lack of visibility of people with disabilities ultimately translates into a lack of understanding, opportunity, and basic human dignity. 

From Outer Stereotypes to Inner Fears

The communist legacy of isolation and the consequent stereotypes that developed also exerted a huge influence on the self-perception of people with disabilities. Years under a communist regime caused many to internalize the persecution and discrimination in such a way as to encourage resignation to their seemingly obvious reality: as people with disabilities, they had no opportunity to genuinely participate in society. Indeed, many people subscribe to the notion that employment for people with disabilities is essentially an impossibility. Moreover, the families of people with disabilities have been detrimentally impacted by years of communist propaganda and stereotyping in that they increasingly doubt the capability and potential of their relatives with handicaps. This sentiment has huge ramifications on the psychological stability of people with disabilities, as it tends to promote their lifelong professional inactivity. As Polish society becomes more and more industrialized – especially in the context of this modern age of globalization – professional development grows immensely important as a status symbol and an identifier of class. More than just promoting personal self-confidence, however, employment for people with disabilities challenges them to overcome the patterns of passivity that were so prevalent in Communist times. 
Indeed, communist ideology “revolved around living passively and poorly, and waiting for what the future might bring. This is the main effect of living under a communist regime on the Polish society, and especially the Polish labor market,” clarifies Marek Plura, the second disabled Member of Parliament in Poland’s history. “You cannot observe such effects in Western European countries, where people have always had a stronger understanding of the need to work. This, again, is in large part related to their lack of experience under a communist regime. So, a 60-year old British citizen with a disability is a completely different person with a completely different ideology from that of a 60-year old Pole with a disability.”  

It is for this very reason that the increased employment of people with disabilities is so crucial. Professional activation allows people to recognize and internalize their individual value in a market of opportunities. “Having a job allows disabled people to be independent,” asserts Emilia Malinowska.  Their social role changes from that of a recipient to that of a contributor, and this shift has huge implications for their personal psychological development and their role within the larger framework of Polish society. People with disabilities can – often for the first time in their lives – help contribute to their family income; they can begin paying taxes to the state. They can assume the characteristics and responsibilities of other Polish citizens, and begin to feel accepted by and enveloped within the borders of Polish society. It is possible, therefore, that the Polish nation will no longer be shackled by communism and its unfair, inequality-encouraging tenets 

In fact, Plura’s involvement in the community of people with disabilities has revealed to him a most promising phenomenon; that is, the emergence of a generational divide with regard to the degree of influence by communist times. This younger generation is demonstrating a far greater level of personal motivation and a far clearer vision of what precisely they want to achieve, in both the personal and professional spheres. Despite the highly detrimental impact of communism on the mentality and identity of people with disabilities, Plura is hopeful that “in the forthcoming years the effects of the Polish communist regime will prove increasingly less powerful. They will disappear after time.” 

Remodeling the Disability Model 

As the memory of Poland’s communist regime fades into the shadows of history, the general understanding of disability and of people with disabilities must also evolve to reflect changing societal attitudes. At present, many individuals in Poland are growing tired of the rigid nature of the former medical model of disability that was so widely implemented in communist times. This model constitutes one of the main lenses through which the vast majority of Poles understood and could further examine the more abstract concept of disabilities.  Nevertheless, time and experience has shown many Poles the detrimental impact of this particular model on the relationship between people with disabilities and the larger society. “There is a sickness in this system,” explains Pawel Wdówik, Director of the Office of Disabled Students at The University of Warsaw. “The model of the Polish, German, and many other European countries was the medical model of attitude toward disabilities, which meant that institutions knew best what was needed for people with disabilities because people were defined only through their disabilities.”  

Indeed, the medical model understands the role of the individual in terms of his or her “deficiency,” as defined through, or because of, a specific handicap. The focus of this model – and the sole factor upon which a person’s life role is dependent – is the insufficient body coordination or the chronic illness that is assumed to substantially and inexorably limit the person’s quality of life. Important, too, is a recognition of the reality that disability, itself, is presented as being intrinsically deviant from the norm, and thus something that requires “fixing.” The goal of such efforts is to assist the inwalidzi in one day achieving a status of health as close as possible to that of a “normal individual.” Karen Saba, a regional disability program manager for Mercy Corps, identifies the risks of this philosophy of “managing the disabled” that stem from an adherence to the medical model. “This perception of disability reduces the disabled to a mere receptacle of health care, a stereotype that encourages and sometimes actively creates patronizing attitudes.”  Additionally, the sole emphasis on the society’s ability to “fix” the disabled promotes a virtually perpetual dependence of the person with the disability upon healthcare providers. In the past ten years or so, it has became painfully obvious that this medical model may not be the optimal means of understanding disability, namely because it limits the societal participation, vocational opportunities, and individual freedom of people with them. “I am tired of this medical concept of a State that is wiser than the individual,” declares Mr. Wdówik defiantly. “Now that awareness is slowly improving, this model has less and less support.”  

In its place has emerged a more socially sensitive model that has entirely redirected the focus of governmental attention and efforts. This social or cultural model sees individuals not as “disabled people,” but rather as “people with disabilities”. The emphasis is not on the deficiency, but rather on the humanity of the individuals and their intimate connection to the larger society. This shifted focus encourages the development of ways in which society itself can create a more accommodating environment to effectively improve the lives of those people with disabilities. 

Furthermore, disability, itself, is seen as an experience rather than a problem, a socially imposed identity rather than an objective fact of nature.  Evident, therefore, is the fact that society has become increasingly aware of its own role in reinforcing discriminatory stereotypes, providing inaccessible environments, and offering insufficient assistance to those people in need. In this way, there is a degree of accountability on the broader society for further disabling the person with disabilities in both daily and professional life. This feeling of accountability demonstrates a crucial distinction between the medical and social models: whereas the former demands the repair of disabling physical and/or health conditions and thus isolates those with such conditions, the latter promotes an adaptation of the environment to the needs of people with disabilities so as to facilitate their full integration and participation in society. What is more, the responsibility of treatment that once burdened medical institutions has been reevaluated and redefined so that now, a cultural, humanitarian-oriented obligation rests on the entire society instead. Evident is the evolution of this ideology from an isolating treatment of physical conditions to an accommodating and inclusive social rehabilitation process. 

The reality, of course, is that neither of the two models actually exists or operates – in entirety – in Polish society. They serve as mere theoretical paradigms to describe the relation of society to its population of people with disabilities. The optimal outcome will be a realization of the need to provide both a socially accommodating environment and the medical attention necessary to assist this specific group of people. Until then, Poland will have to navigate through the residue of decades of communism and bear a number of societal clashes in order to determine how to best facilitate a healthy, productive relationship between people with disabilities and the larger society. Perhaps a continual comparative analysis of these two models will help to reshape the lens through which Polish society understands and relates to this population. Ironically, while the Polish understanding of disabilities may be evolving, the practical reality for those individuals living with disabilities has not undergone such a positive metamorphosis. On the contrary, it appears that Poland has stumbled through the past two decades following the fall of communism with only marginal improvements in the actual treatment of people with disabilities. 

PFRON: Nothing More Than a Polish Front 

The present experience of people with disabilities in the labor market bears a striking resemblance to that in Poland immediately after the fall of communism. The harsh rejection of communist values – a trend that was very characteristic of the post-1989 period – unleashed a series of formerly “taboo’”discussions, included among which was the visibility of people with disabilities. For the first time, the rights of this persecuted population became a prominent part of public discourse. This increased visibility, compounded by the state’s liquidation of the cooperatives of the inwalidzi, supplied the necessary amount of pressure for the government to finally acknowledge the demands of people with disabilities who were long denied access to the Polish workforce.  Public unrest was quelled by the promise of new legislation to improve Poland’s policies regarding the integration of people with disabilities into society – and particularly into the labor market. This promise manifested itself in the Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation of the Disabled Act of 1991. The Polish government claimed that the act was based upon successfully proven solutions introduced in European and other Western countries. And at first glance, the act did appear to be a progressive step towards a full integration of people with disabilities. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive changes spurred by this act was that in terminology. 1991 marked the first year that the term inwalida (invalid) was legally deemed inappropriate when referring to people with disabilities. Instead, the act formally introduced the concept of a “disabled person,” so as to emphasize the individual being rather than solely highlight the disability that plagued him or her. The definition of a disabled person, as proposed in this act, reflected the growing importance of their integration into the labor market. Indeed, a disabled person was legally described as an “individual with an essential physical, psychological, or mental impairment that impedes the individual's ability to earn wages.”  Also introduced was a division of disabilities according to three degrees: light, moderate, and severe. Such distinctions demonstrated the first widespread appreciation of diversity of disability in Polish society – let alone in Polish politics. The 1991 Act also established a number of institutions dedicated to representing the interests and rights of people with disabilities in Poland. This, too, was a huge achievement.  

Nevertheless, while much of the rhetoric utilized in the Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation Act anticipated tremendous change, the resulting reality was not always so positive. In fact, some of the policies codified by this act continue to detrimentally influence Polish society today. The quota levy system, for instance, was designed to encourage companies from both the private and public spheres to employ people with disabilities. To do so, the act instituted a policy whereby companies with 25 or more employees were required to employ a certain percentage of people with disabilities in their workforce. (See Figure 1 for a complete breakdown of the responsibilities of employers with companies of varying sizes). Failure to meet this quota would result in the imposition of fines payable to the National Fund for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (Państwowy Fundusz Rehabilitacji Osób Niepełnosprawnych or PFRON). PFRON, too, was created by the 1991 Act and was intended to finance the vocational and social rehabilitation of people with disabilities in Poland. It was particularly focused upon the creation and adaptation of work environments that were both accessible to and accommodating of people with a variety of handicaps. While this system would appear, in theory, to exert a strong influence on employers to increase the employment of people with disabilities, the reality it promoted was entirely different. It became quite evident – only a few years following the institution of the act – that employers ultimately preferred paying fees to PFRON to adjusting their work environments to the needs of a few employees with disabilities. In truth, this choice was quite logical. The cost of entirely restructuring the workplace and ensuring handicap accessibility far exceeded that of paying PFRON’s required fee for failure to meet the employment quota. One of the greatest contributors to PFRON’s annual budget is the Social Insurance Institution, which, in 2006, was forced to pay a total fine of 26 million zlotys (equivalent to approximately 8.5 million USD) for its refusal to employ a small percentage of people with disabilities in its total workforce. This financial reality has become so ubiquitous that most companies today include the PFRON fee as part of their annual estimated budget.  The results of this act, of course, are entirely counterintuitive. Even more ironic, however, is the reality that this policy has yet to be rectified. 

In fact, the next major development in Polish legislative reform effectively worsened this situation. The Act on Vocational and Social Rehabilitation, created in 1997, further expanded PFRON’s role in the Polish labor market to that which it is at the present day. It made possible the receipt of financial support from PFRON by companies employing the required number of people with disabilities. Such support is to be directed towards facilitating the integration of said employees in the company. In short, the companies are expected to purchase specific technologies or to construct handicap accessible ramps to assist people with disabilities in their daily tasks at the workplace. Nevertheless, very few resources supplied by PFRON are ever actually used to benefit their intended recipients. “The truth is that companies rarely, if ever, use this money to help disabled workers to feel more comfortable in the workplace,” reveals Agnieszka Żychalak, project coordinator at the Center for Careers of the Disabled in Warsaw. “They often just use it to improve production and increase the company’s income.”  Here is yet another example of people with disabilities being deprived of occupational and personal resources – in this case through the very system instituted to ensure that they receive them in the first place.  

All of these examples point to one overarching and painfully ironic reality: if PFRON actually worked, it would not survive. In truth, it is a fundamentally flawed, self-defeating institution. The responsibilities of PFRON, as articulated in the Acts of 1991 of 1997, are at perpetual odds with the institution’s structure and means of sustainability. Consider the following: PFRON has two primary obligations – to finance the vocational and social rehabilitation of people with disabilities, and to penalize those companies that neglect to contribute to this effort. It is financed almost entirely by payments from employers who fail to meet the required employment quota of people with disabilities. Thus, its ability to contribute to the wellbeing of people with disabilities is dependent upon the continued discrimination against them by employers. Were the majority of Polish employers to begin employing the required number of people with disabilities, PFRON would be stripped of all funds with which to finance programs to facilitate the integration of these new employees into their work environments. This relationship reiterates the flawed nature of PFRON as a basic state institution. In doing so, it highlights the dire need for extensive changes in policy to tackle mechanisms of discrimination against people with disabilities that are essentially built into Polish legislation. 

Sheltered Employment: Poland’s Modernized Ghettos? 

Also built into Polish legislation – probably as a residual effect of life under a communist regime – is the concept of workplaces specifically for the disabled. The 1997 Act on Vocational and Social Rehabilitation lays great emphasis upon the development of these institutions, dubbed “sheltered workplaces” supposedly to encourage the integration of people with disabilities into mainstream society and the labor market. These workplaces, however, are eerily reminiscent of the invalid cooperatives prevalent in Communist Poland. Indeed, they generally isolate people with disabilities from the rest of society and often assign very menial tasks and responsibilities. “Someone very smart came up with the idea that invalid cooperatives were a kind of ghetto” asserts Agnieszka Żychalak. “The same can be said of sheltered employment…In our country this whole system is misused.”  These workplaces receive considerable stipends to support their alleged employment of people with disabilities. Agnieszka Żychalak revealed that “certain employers, however, have been known to manipulate individuals with the most limiting disabilities or convince others who are more willing to sign a special contract that makes them official workers – but only on paper.”  Unfortunately, the 1997 Act made it relatively easy to attain the status of a “sheltered workplace.” As a result, many companies continue to utilize this loophole to gain additional funds, while relentlessly marginalizing people with disabilities. 

This is not to say, however, that all institutions with the title of “sheltered workplace” are really out to exploit the benefits that are derived from this label. In fact, Wittchen, known for its superior quality leather products, functions as a prime example of a sheltered workplace that effectively and productively integrates people with disabilities into the Polish labor market – and produces popular goods in the process. It is truly a model workplace and its long-term future policies, which are now being guided in large part by its employees with disabilities, will ensure its continued success in effective integration. Marta Lempart, Vice-Director of the Office of the Plenipotentiary for People with Disabilities admits, however, that generally speaking, “sheltered workplaces do not work. They do not offer work, as was initially planned.”  Instead, they often operate as modernized ghettos, of sorts, marginalizing people with disabilities and demeaning their ability to fully contribute to the labor market by offering them only the most mindless of tasks to complete. The isolating and demoralizing circumstances of these “sheltered ghettos” certainly belie their alleged goals of integration and rehabilitation. There is a dire need to assert the rights of people with disabilities to employment and equality in Polish society.  

Leaving the Ghetto: The Way Forward 

And there is a critical need to recognize the anachronistic nature of “sheltered workplaces” in Poland’s market economy. The concept of “work place creation” is yet another residual reflection of communist times and centrally planned economies, where the desire to employ an additional worker actually required the creation of a physical place in which the worker could function. Today, however, this is not the case. The demand for labor in Poland’s market economy is derived from the demand for various goods and services. The way to increase the employment of workers – specifically workers with disabilities – is to help them to fairly compete for jobs with other workers. The leveling of this professional “playing field” demands various types of physical and social accommodations. To do this, employers will obviously need a substantial amount of funds. Nevertheless, the current system under PFRON is subject to far too much abuse, manipulation, and self-destructive structuring. The system requires tremendous reform and policy advancement.    

Such reform must begin with the streamlining of administrative structures and responsibilities with regard to the funding and coordinating of rehabilitation services. At present, the relationship between the source of funds, their distribution and usage, and the ultimate translation (or lack thereof) to benefits for employees with disabilities is far too convoluted. The tasks of funding and monitoring the integration of people with disabilities must rest in the hands of one institution that is held accountable to and by the Polish people – and specifically, the Polish people with disabilities. To this end, local governments are probably best suited to fulfill this obligation. What is more, local governments can solicit the assistance of both NGOs and private companies that seek to benefit from the increased and more effective employment of people with disabilities.   

The past decade, in fact, has seen a surge in the efficacy of efforts made by NGOs to assert the equality of people with disabilities in Poland. Indeed, the rise in the number and strength of disability NGOs in Poland offers a great source of hope and inspiration for the remodeling of the Polish rehabilitation and integration model. Polish society is now speckled with NGOs of varying sizes that specialize in asserting the rights of a particular group of marginalized people with disabilities. Grzegorz Kozlowski leads the Association for the Welfare of the Deafblind, which recently developed a new therapy centre in Warsaw that provides social rehabilitation ‘classes’ and group counseling services. Piotr Pawłowski’s Friends of Integration Association (Integracja) organizes symposiums and conferences aimed at training those with disabilities to prepare themselves for the labor market, to better involve themselves in their communities, and to learn more about their rights as disabled Polish citizens. The Disabled Women Association One.pl is an organization dedicated to the fight against the double discrimination from which the vast majority of Polish females with disabilities suffer. Individually, these organizations have made huge strides in the struggle for the equality of people with disabilities. Nevertheless, their mutual goals will not be realized until they collaborate and coordinate their actions to speak with a unified voice in demanding more effective policies and fairer treatment from the Polish government. Liz Sayce, Chief Executive Office of RADAR, one of the UK’s leading disability organizations, encourages Poland’s disability NGOs to “come together under an umbrella organization to improve access to mainstream employment in the labor market among the disabled. Poland’s NGOs are strong now and with great allegiance, there is tremendous potential for change.”  The combination of positions across the disability spectrum will certainly improve the bargaining power of this historically marginalized community – particularly with regard to enhanced legislation. 

Important to note, here, are the implications of improved legislation for people with disabilities. Many of the mechanisms Poland utilizes to discriminate against its disabled population are written into Polish legislation. Currently, various leaders in the disability NGO community are working on an anti-discrimination bill to institute counter-mechanisms whereby people with disabilities can report incidents of disability prejudice, especially those concerning employment possibilities or accommodations. One of the goals of this bill is to place the onus of proof on the discriminating employer or coworker, rather than on the person with the disability. It is hoped that this reversal of historical precedent – will induce a positive modification of behavior on the part of employers toward their disabled employees. Furthermore, the anti-discrimination bill would guarantee certain necessities such as guides or translators to disabled individuals to ensure that they are elevated to the necessary level of communication to begin integrating into mainstream society. Such legislation is hugely important in safeguarding the human and civic rights of Polish citizens with disabilities.  

Nevertheless, a total reliance on legislation fails to address the national lack of concern about the treatment of Poland’s disabled population. Social campaigns regarding the need to create an inclusive society that values all of its members have had mixed effects on Polish citizens. More pressing is the need to encourage Poland, the country – and not merely the Polish government – to internalize and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This document, already signed by over 130 countries, identifies the major problems plaguing people with disabilities and embodies the necessary principles, ideologies, and behaviors that are necessary to effectively integrate this group into the international community. What is more, the Convention recognizes the interrelation between disability and other influential factors such as gender and education. It demonstrates an understanding, for instance, of the reality that women with disabilities are multiply disadvantaged in the workplace, as they experience exclusion on account of both their gender and their disability.  In addition, Poland’s signing of the Convention will encourage its interaction with other countries that are likewise facing the challenge of promoting the equality of people with disabilities. Such interactions may result in the sharing of good practices and the adoption of effective and transformative models. 

While it is crucial to address Poland’s lack of concern on a macro-level, it is similarly critical to examine Poland’s lack of motivation on a more micro-level. “Often times, a lack of motivation on the part of the person with the disability can be more damaging than discrimination from an employer,”  Agnieszka Żychalak contends. To tackle this challenge, social campaigns will hardly suffice. Rather, there is a need to truly root Poles with disabilities in Polish society. RADAR CEO Liz Sayce explains, “What we’ve found is that people come together around a goal. They don’t come together so much just to be part of a disability community. And why should they? We are not out to make Poland one big disability-specific community. We are here trying to move beyond identity politics.”  

Realizing this goal will depend upon an ability to look across key policies and key areas of delivery in order to ensure that the disability dimension is fully incorporated in those areas. Of course, the Polish path to improvement will not be paved with a simple “copy-pasting” of those successful efforts executed by other Western European nations. Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that the Polish people cannot reap the benefits of other European experiences. Indeed, by inserting the disability dimension into a whole range of regularly significant Polish policies, people with disabilities will find themselves and their experiences deeply rooted in the fabric of Polish society. This will bring about a restructuring of the Polish conception of disability and its relations to all other aspects of Polish society – especially those in the workforce. No longer will people with disabilities be seen as fundamentally different from the larger Polish society. And perhaps for the first time, Poland will be able to embrace those with disabilities in its labor market.


Works cited:

Andersson, Patrik, et al. « Sickness, Disability and Work: Breaking the Barriers: Norway, Poland and Switzerland”. Vol. 1. Brussels: OECD Publishing, 2006. 
Hoopengardner, Tom. “Disability and Work in Poland.” Warsaw: Human Development Department of the World Bank, 2001. 
Institute of Communication and Information Technologies Ltd. “Flexible working as a means ofincreasing access to employment for disabled persons in Poland.” Flexwork Briefing, July2003.
Kalita, Justyna. Procedura wsparcia bezrobotnej osoby niepełnosprawnej: opracowana napodstawie doświadczeń Centrum Karier Osób Niepełnosprawnych przy Fundacji TUS.Warsaw: Projekt współfinansowany z Europejskiego Funduszu Spolecznego, 2008. 
Kurkus-Rozowska, Bozena. “Workers with disabilities in Poland.” Warsaw: Central Institute for Labour Protection National Research Institute, 2006. 
Saba, Karen. “What Constitutes a Disability?” World Bank. 2004.
Shima, Isilda, et al. “The Labour Market Situation of People with Disabilities in EU25.” Policy Brief of European Centre, 2008. 
The Associated Press. “Poland gets U.N. award for efforts to integrate its disabled into society.”   International Herald Tribune. 18 September 2006. 
United Nations. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 2008. Article 8. 
Zolkowska, Teresa and Iwona Kasior-Szerszen. “Poland: New Vocational Rehabilitation Policies.” 2005. 6. 


Cordell, Jane. Personal Interview. First Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw. 1 July 2008.
Darska, Anna. Speech at National PEKIN: Praca, Edukacja, Kariera i Niepełnosprawność (Work, Education, Career and Disability) Conference. Ambassador to UNDP in Poland. 30 June 2008. 
Förster, Michael. Email Correspondence. Economist in the Social Policy Division of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 30 June 2008. 
Kozlowski, Grzegorz. Personal Interview. President and Founder of the Association for the Assistance of Deafblind People (Towarzystwo Pomocy Gluchoniewidomym). 26 June 2008. 
Lempart, Marta. Speech at National PEKIN: Praca, Edukacja, Kariera i Niepełnosprawność (Work, Education, Career and Disability) Conference. Vice-Director in the Office of the Government’s Plenipotentiary for People with Disabilities. 
Malinowska, Emilia. Personal Interview. Professional psychologist specializing in disabled children; Member of the Disabled Women Association ONE.pl. 27 June 2008. 
Miller, Helen. Personal Interview. Political Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw. 1 July2008.
Pawłowski, Piotr. Personal Interview. President of the Friends of Integration Association; Editor-in- chief of the Integracja Magazine. 1 July 2008. 
Pelczarska, Agnieszka. Personal Interview. Teacher for the Polish Association of the Blind. 28 June 2008. 
Plura, Marek. Personal Interview. MP of the Polish Parliament. 27 June 2008. 
Prinz, Christopher. Electronic Correspondence. Policy Analyst at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 30 June 2008. 
Radziszewska, Małgorzata. Personal Interview. Cofounder and President of the Disabled Women Association ONE.pl. 2 July 2008. 
Sayce, Liz. Personal Interview. Chief Executive Officer of Radar: The Disability Network in the  United Kingdom. 26 June 2008. Wdówik, Pawel. Personal Interview. Director of the Office of Disabled Students at Warsaw University (BON). 27 June 2008. 
Scanlan, Sara. Personal Interview. First Secretary Assistant at the British Embassy in Warsaw. 1 July  2008. 
Siemaszko, Izabela. Personal Interview. Expert at the National Rehabilitation Fund for the Disabled (PFRON). 1 July 2008. 
Szczycinski, Jan. Email Correspondence. Analyst at the United Nations Development Programme: Warsaw Office. 1 July 2008. 
Vandenberghe, Vincent. Electronic and Telephonic Correspondence. Economist in the Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 30 June 2008. 
Żychalak, Agnieszka. Personal Interview. Program Director of the Center for Careers for People with Disabilities at the TUS Foundation (Centrum Karier Osob Niepelnosprawnych przy Fundacji TUS). 26 June 2008. 


Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Poland Poland 2008


Related Media

Browse all content