Warsaw, Poland – In response to protests that occupied Poland’s parliament for 17 days, the country’s Senate has now voted to boost welfare benefits for parents who leave their jobs to care for their disabled children. The amount will rise from $270 per month to $431 by 2016 – an increase of 60 percent. Next week, the Polish parliament will vote on whether to ratify the Senate’s bill.
“In 20 years of Polish democracy, there has not been an effective welfare system established supporting a family taking care of a child with a disability,” said Iwona Hartwich, the leader of the protests that ran during March and April.
“We represent a group of 104,000 parents and have been knocking on the door of Prime Minister Donald Tusk asking – actually begging – him for help,” she said. “We believed in his promises made in 2011 that we will never have to go on the streets again and fight for the acknowledgement of our children’s rights. Years passed by and nothing has happened.”
Piotr Broda-Wysocki, a political science lecturer at Warsaw’s Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University, said that, although the law recommends adjusting carer allowances every three years in line with the cost of living, Poland had not raised allowances in 10 years. Broda-Wysocki said Poland’s social welfare system could “make only survival possible – but sometimes not even this”.
‘Extreme burden for parents’
Jolanta’s 14-year-old son, Szymon, suffers from spina bifida and is not able to walk. Jolanta, who asked that her surname not be published, said she receives about $400 a month, consisting of a $270 carer’s allowance and three other child benefits, which she uses to cover the costs of rehabilitation and buy her son the expensive orthopaedic shoes he needs.
She told Al Jazeera the level of child support she receives from the government would need to be tripled in order for her to live in dignity.
Four years ago, her son needed a specialised wheelchair, costing $4,600. “That wheelchair would help me take him for a walk. Saving $4,600 from my monthly $400 was not possible. We had luck as we were approached by a group of young people who organised a charity concert for Szymon and collected the funds. What about other kids? Why can’t we be provided with sufficient help from the government?” she asked.
Unlike Poland, Scandinavian countries including Denmark, Norway and Sweden directly employ carers for disabled children. In Germany, carertakers’ allowances can add up to about $2,760 per month, covering the costs of qualified nurses taking care of the disabled children at home.
Raimund Schmid, CEO of the German organisation Kindernetzwerk [“Children’s Network”], told Al Jazeera that, while “taking care of a disabled child around the clock is an extreme burden for the parents”, the German welfare system guarantees them and their children a life with dignity.
Limited access and pressuring principals
Poland has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which prohibits the exclusion of disabled children from the education system on the basis of having special accessibility requirements.
“Integrated schools have been established. There is no lack of integration classes and adopted schools,” said Polish Minister of Labour and Social Policy Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz.
But parents say they face a different reality. Many of them, especially those in smaller towns, become frustrated with limited access to educational institutions for their children and decide to move to larger cities where the chances of finding a school that integrates children better are much higher.
An EU report stated that, although the Polish Act on the Education System grants equal access for all children, “individual principals of mainstream schools may still put pressure on parents of children with disabilities to place the child in a special school”.
Janina Arsenjeva, programme manager at the International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, said a review process could help ensure the UN convention is adhered to:
“Countries need to adopt a long-term strategy of how they are going to move towards inclusive education, and have to report to the UN concerning their respect for the provisions of this convention.”
Broda-Wysocki said perceptions must change so that the entire social welfare system is considered an investment in the future of Polish society.
“Funds for social benefits, especially for the young generation, need to stop being considered a wasted expenditure. This is smart money. If we can improve someone’s health condition, providing for him in the future will be much less expensive. Moreover, if we can educate these children and help them become independent, we will have a good citizen and taxpayer in the future.”
With this in mind, Polish parents emphasised that the government amendment to boost carertakers’ allowances is just a first step, and they’ll demand more measures to improve their children’s standard of living.
Hartwich said the protest had been suspended but parents are determined to enforce their demands – and may travel to Brussels to win the attention of the EU Parliament.
Asked about the current system of welfare guarantees, Minister Kosiniak-Kamysz told Al Jazeera: “Although the situation improves each year, it still does not reflect my dreams.”