Last Saturday, dozens of people dressed in black carried a coffin through the streets of Warsaw to the presidential palace.
The mourners in this symbolic funeral procession were people with disabilities and supporters urging Polish authorities to adopt a law guaranteeing access to personal assistance – one-on-one support a person with a disability might need for day-to-day living.
Personal assistance enables many people with disabilities to perform basic activities, like working, studying, meeting friends and family, going out for a walk, or going to a restaurant. Such assistance is often necessary for people with disabilities to enjoy their rights, including living and inclusion in the community on an equal basis with others. Without it, people may have no other option than to be forced into segregated residential institutions, where they lose all autonomy.
“Access to personal assistance is a matter of life and death for some people with disabilities,” said Łukasz Orylski, an activist of the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL) who himself is supported by a personal assistant. “This form of protest might seem drastic, but the situation is serious enough.”
At the moment, personal assistance is available through central government grants to local authorities and nongovernmental organizations. However, according to an analysis by the Polish Supreme Audit Office, in 2020-2021 services were not provided on a continuous basis and only 0.6 percent of people with disabilities benefited from the program.
In March, representatives of organizations of people with disabilities met with the Ministry of Family and Social Policy to hear about key provisions of a draft bill in the works since 2021. Based on what was shared, Orylski says, the bill doesn't go far enough and some of the provisions are not in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Poland ratified in 2012.
The president’s office announced last week it hopes to present the draft bill for public consultation “as soon as possible” and take it to parliament before elections in the fall. Activists worry that if the draft bill is not considered before the election, it might be scrapped altogether.
Article 19 of the CRPD guarantees the right of all persons with disabilities to live independently and calls on governments to provide community-based services, including personal assistance, necessary to support that right.
The Polish authorities should listen to the protesters and ensure people with disabilities have the support they need to live independently and be included in the community.