Piotr Pawlowski is pioneering Poland's first serious disability mainstreaming and public education effort. He is doing so through structured workshops in secondary schools, targeted at teenagers and educators. He is also setting up the country's first resource center for newly disabled people and their families in order to ease the first pangs of sorrow and confusion with reassurance and practical advice. Moreover, Piotr has started a national campaign for the prevention of spinal cord injuries.
The New Idea
In reaction to the isolation and stigmatization that he felt after his accident and recognizing that separate does not mean equal, Piotr Pawlowski is spearheading an effort to mainstream disabled Poles by giving them access to the same education facilities that their nondisabled peers have. Piotr realizes that discrimination against disabled people will not end until society changes its attitudes and becomes more sensitive to their special needs. Therefore, he has chosen Polish schools as his battlefield. He has developed a special curriculum that is designed to educate teachers and school administrators. Piotr is convinced that until the attitudes of these people change, disabled students will find it nearly impossible to attend "normal" schools, regardless of whether the law officially gives them access to the schools. Piotr is also setting up a national resource center and hotline for disabled people so that they may have full access to the resources currently available to them in Poland. He believes this will help ease their sense of isolation and make it possible for them to network with one another. In addition, he is involved in planning a new housing estate, where ten percent of the apartments will be specially equipped for disabled tenants. This will be the first such housing project in Poland. Not satisfied with just helping disabled people, Piotr has also begun the first national campaign for the prevention of spinal cord injuries. He hopes to reduce the number of spinal cord injuries due to carelessness.
There are approximately 150,000 people confined to wheelchairs in Poland, and every year between 1,600 and 1,800 incidents of spinal trauma result in permanent damage to motor skills. Like other physically challenged people in Poland, these individuals find little support or understanding from mainstream Polish society. Indeed, many face discrimination in education, work and housing. For example, only three percent of all Poles in wheelchairs are university graduates, as compared to nine percent of the total population; only twenty percent of the disabled have graduated from high school, compared with 39 percent of all Poles. The unemployment rate for wheelchair-confined individuals with university degrees is five times higher than that of nondisabled university graduates.
These statistics reflect the misperceptions about the disabled in Polish society. Parents often will not allow their healthy children to help or interact with people in wheelchairs, because they are afraid that their children will become infected with a disease that will disable them. Furthermore, disabled children are often segregated into special schools that severely limit their social interaction.
Disabled people who manage to acquire an education often find it difficult to secure meaningful employment. Frequently, when prospective employers discover that a candidate is physically challenged , the offer of a job is withdrawn. Unfortunately, disabled victims of discrimination have little legal recourse under current Polish law.
Even those people who are interested in helping disabled people often find it difficult to relate to them because of their lack of experience and training. They simply do not know what to do for them. Overall, disabled Poles are isolated and are not allowed to realize their enormous potential contributions to Polish society.
To help facilitate the spread of his ideas, Piotr founded an association called "Friends of Integration." The association's work focuses on three distinct areas: education, spinal cord injury prevention; and support for disabled people.
In 1991, Piotr launched his pilot program which teaches school-age children to accept and relate to disabled children. As part of this pilot project, he met with more than 50 classes and their teachers. This experience enabled him to perfect his teaching technique so that it could be duplicated easily at schools throughout Poland.
Piotr's method focuses on instilling a new sensitivity toward the disabled and disability issues. Students are often put in wheelchairs and then told to negotiate a set of stairs, or blindfolded and told to locate various objects. In addition to sensitivity training, the young people are educated on how they can help physically challenged individuals and relate to them in appropriate and respectful ways.
To further spread his curriculum, Piotr has published a manual for teachers and has started a teacher's training program in more than 45 high schools. This program trains both teachers and administrators on how to integrate disabled children into their schools and classrooms.
In the area of spinal cord injury prevention, Piotr, in partnership with several popular Polish pop stars, has produced a series of videos that demonstrate dangerous behaviors that can lead to serious spinal cord injury. These video clips are the first of their kind in Poland and are now running on Polish television.
Finally, in the area of support for the disabled, Piotr has established a hotline that disabled people use when they need information, support or advice. The hotline will eventually be tied to a computerized database, which will have information on organizations and services available to help the disabled or have other useful related services.
Piotr has been in a wheelchair since a diving accident at the age of sixteen. At the time of his accident, Piotr was a promising basketball player, as well as an active school organizer. He received several awards for organizing school sports events. Despite being confined to wheelchair and having only partial use of one hand, Piotr has always remained positive. He has never let his disability stop him from achieving his goals, including completing his university education.