There exists a significant correlative link between disability and poverty in Poland. In 2021, the most severely disabled people in Poland faced a 33.5% risk of falling into poverty, which is double the poverty rate of the general Polish population, the European Semester 2020-2021 country fiche on disability in Poland reveals. In recent years, the government has offered benefits for the families of people with severe disabilities. However, activists argue that the benefits must be expanded to support the high costs of living in the nation.

Government Initiatives

In 2018, the Government of Poland launched a program called “Accessibility+,” which is set to last until 2025. The program allocated 23.2 billion zlotys to fund special schools and general welfare. It also established the Accessibility Council as “an advisory body to the Minister for Regional Development.” In theory, this council pushes for laws that mandate high accessibility standards in all areas of life, such as health care, public transportation and public institutions.

For example, public transportation services must provide tactile paving, braille maps and easy passage for wheelchair users. Accessibility+ is a significant achievement for the Polish disability movement because the first step of integrating those with disabilities into the economy is to ensure their safety in public. In addition, the government has introduced measures, such as the 2019 Solidarity Fund for Persons with Disabilities, to provide “social, professional or health support for persons with disabilities,” the government website says. All of these measures serve to address the link between disability and poverty in Poland.

Activist Protests in 2018 and 2023

Political Critique tells the story of Iwona Hartwich, the mother of 25-year-old Kuba who has cerebral palsy and is one of nearly 300,000 severely disabled persons in Poland who cannot live independently. Hartwich is a Civic Coalition opposition party member and a key organizer of protests demanding greater state care for those with disabilities. In 2018, she led demonstrators, mostly parents of disabled children, to occupy the Sejm (the lower house of the Parliament) for 38 days. In response to this demonstration, the government unveiled Accessibility+, the Solidarity Fund and other initiatives to help disabled people.

But, protesters and activists criticize the government initiatives in response to the 2018 protests as surface-level and insufficient. Hartwich notes that while the government allocated 33 billion zlotys to the Solidarity Fund, households with disabled people have received only 12 billion zlotys. In March 2023, demonstrators led by Hartwich again occupied the Sejm.

As of March 1, families of adults incapable of living independently due to severe disabilities received an allowance of 1,588.44 zlotys ($378.9) a month before tax, which is less than half the statutory minimum wage of 3,490 zlotys ($832.56). After tax, this allowance became 1,217 zlotys ($290.32). In light of record inflation and unemployment, this allowance amounts to what Hartwich has dubbed a “starvation pension.” To properly address the link between disability and poverty in Poland, protesters are calling for their disability benefits to increase to the level of Poland’s minimum wage. In addition to better benefits, demonstrators are fighting for the right to keep their benefits while employed. As it stands, the government denies allowances to employed caregivers.

New Government Proposals in 2023

In light of the recent grassroots campaigns concerning the relationship between disability and poverty in Poland, the government unveiled a set of proposals in 2023. This represents a “change in logic” in how it assists households with disabled family members. The proposals place a newfound emphasis on the autonomy of disabled adults by giving benefits specifically to them, not to their caregivers. This could cultivate independence as the adults could then use the money to pay for their own care instead of relying on their parents. This change of logic more closely aligns with the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Poland ratified in 2012 and which emphasizes the individual autonomy of people with disabilities.

The Power of the Polish Disability Movement

Grassroots activists lead the way in raising public awareness about the condition of people with disabilities. For example, the group Protest 2119 played a role in organizing the 2023 occupation of the Sejm. The number “2119” references the 2119 zlotys afforded to families per disabled child. The group’s Sejm demonstration forced the public to reevaluate not only the state’s treatment of disabled people but also its own ableist prejudices, which affect hiring and play a crucial role in the link between disability and poverty in Poland.

Campaigns raise international awareness as well. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) monitors countries’ implementation of the Convention. In response to the 2018 protests, the CRPD conducted an investigation of the Polish government’s treatment of people with disabilities. The committee reaffirmed the conclusion of grassroots campaigns that people with disabilities in Poland are “still not fully enjoying their human rights.” The committee did, however, commend Poland’s adoption of the 2018-2025 Accessibility+ program. Groups like the CRPD are instrumental in pressuring the Polish government to adhere to international disability rights standards.

What is Ahead?

Activists like Iwona Hartwich continue to advocate greater state care for those who cannot live independently. Each wave of demonstrations demands attention from the public, the international community and those with the power to implement social policy. With persistence and perseverance, the activists have seen success in improving the material conditions of people with disabilities.

– Eric Huang

Photo: Wikimedia

Telemedicine Clinics in GuatemalaNew telemedicine clinics in Guatemala are providing vital resources to women and children living in remote areas with limited access to healthcare specialists. This advancement in healthcare technology increases Guatemala’s healthcare accessibility and follows a trend of a worldwide increase in telemedicine services.

Guatemala’s New Telemedicine Clinics

Guatemala’s Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance (MSPAS), in conjunction with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization, launched four new telemedicine clinics in Guatemala in December 2020.

The clinics were designed to improve accessibility to doctors and specialists for citizens living in rural areas, where unstable or lengthy travel can deter patients from getting the care they need. Lack of staff is another barrier telemedicine hopes to overcome. Special attention will be given to issues of child malnutrition and maternal health.

The funding of the program was made possible through financial assistance from the Government of Sweden and the European Union. aimed at increasing healthcare access in rural areas across the world.

Guatemala’s State of Healthcare

Roughly 80% of Guatemala’s doctors are located within metropolitan areas, leaving scarce availability for those living in rural areas. Issues of nutrition and maternal healthcare are special targets for the new program due to the high rates of child malnutrition and maternal mortality in Guatemala.

Guatemala’s child malnutrition rates are some of the highest in all of Central America and disproportionately affect its indigenous communities. Throughout the country, 46.5% of children under 5 are stunted due to malnutrition.

Maternal death rates are high among women in Guatemala but the country has seen a slow and steady decline in maternal mortality over the last two decades. The most recently reported maternal death rate is 95 per 100,000 births.

Guatemala does have a promising antenatal care rate, with 86% of women receiving at least four antenatal care visits during their pregnancies. By increasing the access to doctors through telemedicine clinics, doctors can better diagnose issues arising during pregnancy and prepare for possible birth difficulties that could result in maternal death.

Guatemala’s COVID-19 rates have also impacted the ability of patients to seek healthcare. The threat of the virus makes it difficult for those traveling to seek medical treatment due to the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Trends in Worldwide Telemedicine

The world has seen a rise of telemedicine clinics as the pandemic creates safety concerns regarding in-person visits with doctors. Doctors are now reaching rural communities that previously had little opportunity to access specialized medicine. Telemedicine is an important advancement toward accessible healthcare in rural areas. While the telemedicine clinics in Guatemala are limited in numbers, they set an important example of how technology can be utilized to adapt during a health crisis and reach patients in inaccessible areas.

June Noyes
Photo: Flickr