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Polish Blind Struggle for New Identity after the Fall of Communism

by Homer Page

It has been a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the legacy of that regime still haunts people with disabilities in the lands that were ruled by the communists. During the last five years, the blind community in Poland sought assistance from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). The National Association of the Blind (NAB) of Poland recognizes the need to end the economic and social isolation imposed on the Polish blind by the custodial communist order.

The collaboration between blind Americans and the Polish blind community is one example of the growing global cooperation that is now occurring among disability groups around the world. In addition to America, persons with disabilities from Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and other European countries have reached out to second and third world members of the disability community to offer assistance. International organizations of persons with disabilities are growing in numbers. The disability community, as every other community, is taking on a global scope.

For one thousand years, Poland was victimized by invaders from the east and west. World War II began with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. It was the location of one of the very worst concentration camps. Auschwitz, located in southwest Poland, is synonymous with the evil of the Holocaust. Some of the most bitter fighting of the war raged across its landscape. Early in the war, the USSR invaded and took many Polish citizens to slave labor camps in Russia. By the time the war ended, ten million Poles had been killed, half were Jewish, and the other half were Christian; and then, three years after the war ended, Poland was turned into a communist satellite of the USSR.

The Russians dominated Poland for over forty years. The Poles hated the heavy handed oppression rained down on them by the Russians, but for the blind, the most lasting effect of Russian rule is the legacy of dependency and obsolete economic and blindness skills taught under communism. The old system provided housing, transportation and work in cooperatives that were specially set up as sheltered workshops for the blind. Blind persons in Poland lived for two generations in an environment of governmental subsidies, isolation and paternalism.

When the communist world collapsed, there were no longer funds or commitments in the new free market economy to subsidize the old system and the blind of Poland were ill prepared to make it on their own. The leaders of the Polish National Association of the Blind recognized the need for change. They turned to their neighbors in Western Europe, and especially to the National Federation of the Blind in America for new ideas, training, and most importantly, for a new spirit of freedom and independence.

Beginning in the mid-90ís, Polish representatives attended the national conventions of the NFB. They traveled in America to learn about the NFB training centers in Rustin, Louisiana, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Denver, Colorado. They invited the training centers to send teams to Poland to conduct training programs for members of the NAB. Four American teams involving over forty persons traveled to Poland to conduct training seminars for the blind. Over five hundred members of the NAB participated in the seminars. Internships for Polish students with the NFB centers are under discussion.

The NFB is the largest organization of blind persons in America. Founded in 1940, it has been a powerful voice for security, equality and opportunity for blind persons. Often controversial, the NFB has developed training centers that promote independence. These centers are modeled on the programs created at the Iowa Commission for the Blind during the 1960ís and Ď70ís under the leadership of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. Dr. Jernigan was a leader of the organization from the early 50ís until his death in 1998. He was NFB president from 1968 to 1986.

The NFB has been active in international organizations of the blind since its founder, Jacobus ten Broek became instrumental in the founding of the World Federation of the Blind. The NFB has previously conducted training programs in Africa and South America.

Delegations from Australia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, the United Arab Emerits, and India have studied the NFB centers. In 1991, I was invited to lecture in Sweden on the philosophy and practice of the NFBís approach to the rehabilitation of the blind.

Listening intently at the meetings via headphones through an interpreter

The training focus in each of the centers is on the development of affirmative attitudes and independent living skills that permit students to live and work productively. Self sufficiency and active responsible participation in the blind community are goals for each student. Students study Braille, the operation of computers using adaptive technology, independent travel, food preparation, and money management. Confidence building activities that include wood shop, rock climbing, and the preparation of formal dinners challenge students. Career planning and work experience are integrated into each studentís experience. Training is done in a residential setting. A student program at one of the NFB centers takes approximately nine months to complete.

Mr. Tadeusz Madzia, President of the Polish NAB, asked the NFB to train his members to provide the type of programs offered in America. He is also a member of the National Parliament. During the communist era, he worked as a manager and finally as a director in the system of collaboratives. After Poland became independent, he was asked to run for a seat in Parliament on the Solidarity slate. He is the Vice President of the governmentís national fund for programs that serve persons with disabilities. He is a sophisticated politician and a gracious host.

Mr. Madzia attended the 1995 NFB convention, and then came to Colorado to visit the NFB training center in Denver. He and his colleagues were especially impressed by the way in which blind students at the center were learning to travel independently. Blind persons in Poland seldom go out alone. But the American students learn to use a long, white cane and public transportation. He was also impressed by the way in which blind persons in the Denver area work in mainstream occupations. He asked if the Americans could share their experiences with the blind of Poland.

The National Association of the Blind in Poland owns a training center located in Ustron Zawodzie. Ustron Zawodzie is a small resort community in the Carpathian Mountains in southwest Poland, only a few kilometers from the border with the Czech Republic. The NAB facility is fully equipped with a kitchen and dining hall capable of serving 200 guests. It has sleeping rooms, meeting rooms, a library and gymnasium. Hiking trails parallel the head waters of the Vistula River.

Four two- week seminars were planned and conducted. Ten Americans and 125 Poles participated in each seminar. I developed the curriculum for the seminars, and led two of them. At that time, I was the Director of the Colorado Center for the Blind. Disability Life Editor, Angie Wood, was a co-leader of one of the seminars. Joyce Scanlan, Director of the Minnesota Center for the Blind, led two of the seminars. Staff from the three centers conducted the training.

The NAB coordinator for the seminars was Dr. Ludwik Rosiennik. He is a professor of economics and Director of International Relations for the NAB. When he was an infant, his family was taken by the Soviets to Russia. There, they were put into a forced labor camp. He was held captive until he was eight years old. After the war ended, he and his family returned to Poland, but the effects of malnutrition left him blind.

Mr. Madzia and Dr. Rosiennik ask that independent travel, employment and advocacy be emphasized. They also wanted us to discuss the way in which consumer organizations are funded in America. They were interested in the way that we balance the demands of a direct service program with advocacy. Many of their questions are similar to the ones we are asking ourselves in America.

The NAB of Poland is a peculiar organization from the point of view of Americans. It violates our beliefs about the separation of consumer organizations from those that administer government programs. It administers the National Rehabilitation Program for the Blind, while at the same time it is the only membership organization for blind persons in Poland. A sister organization serves persons with other disabilities in much the same way.

Membership in the NAB confers many benefits. There are housing and transportation subsidies. Doctors associated with the NAB routinely certify its members unable to work. This makes them eligible for financial support, but it is also a barrier to employment. The Polish blind have numerous disincentives to work.

Dr Ludwik Rosiennik and other members of the seminar

A wide generation gap exists within the NAB. Older members are comfortable with the paternalism with which they lived for most of their lives. However, younger people want to join the free wheeling Polish economy and society. The young want to learn to travel independently, work in mainstream occupations, and integrate into the sighted world. They are aggressive, confident, and angry with their elders. On the other hand, the elders fear the loss of security. They believe that it is impossible for blind persons to live integrated lives. They resent the harsh implied judgment that they believe the youth are making on the way in which they have lived.

The Polish are a warm and friendly people, but more than once, we found ourselves in the middle of an inter-generational conflict in which we were the objects of the controversy. The youth supported our message, while the elders opposed it.

As the Poles talked, it became clear that the NAB is an arm of the Polish government. It has not played a role in advocating for social and legislative change. It has been dependent on the state for funding to operate its programs and provide its services. The interest in ways to fund a consumer advocacy organization grows out of the desire by the leaders and some of the members to become less dependent on the Polish government for funds. Many of our fund raising strategies are unknown in Poland. For forty years, the communist run government controlled everything. The government provided the funding, and of course it had the power to withhold it. They did not want an organization to have an independent funding source, and thus, an independent power base. Now, private membership organizations must develop strategies for raising funds if they are to survive and establish an independent voice.

Harold Wilson, Max Brooks, Joanne Wilson, and Polish guide

Few things are more important to a blind person than the ability to travel independently. The NFB centers train their students to travel effectively. The Poles were amazed that the Americans expect blind persons to travel independently. They have drawn a sharp distinction between persons who have some vision and those who are totally blind. They are fearful for a totally blind person to travel alone, but at the NFB centers, the persons who have partial vision are asked to wear sleep shades while in training.

It is the experience of the NFB that one learns mobility skills more completely when the student does not try to use untrustworthy sight. One listens better, uses his or her cane more effectively, and thinks more clearly. These alternative techniques work, while a dependency on limited vision proves to be inadequate. One often is unable to function at night, or when coming inside after being in bright light. One may fail to see dangerous obstacles in the environment that he or she would have found if aggressively using a long, white cane.

The Poles have historically used a short, white cane. This cane has served primarily to identify the user as a blind person. The American cane is used to explore the ground in front of the traveler. The American trainers gave their Polish students sleep shades and a long white cane and took them out into the streets. The Polish skepticism soon turned to excitement as they discovered the freedom of independent travel.

The traditional employment for blind persons in Poland has been massage and light industrial work done in sheltered workshops. But, with the closing of the workshops, the unemployment among the blind has risen to over ninety percent. Poland has legislation that requires businesses to hire a quota of persons with disabilities. However, they have an option to pay a fee instead of providing employment. Many choose this option. The general unemployment rate in Poland is in double digits, so there is a lot of competition for jobs. The blind do not do well in this competition.

The American trainers acknowledged that persons with disabilities in the U.S. still have a high unemployment rate, perhaps as high as 65%. We shared with them the strategies which we use with our students. Our students have a much higher success rate than do other blind persons. "In order to work," we told them, "a blind person must have very good alternative skills. They must have good specific job skills, and they must be motivated. The blind worker can find employment and can be a successful employee, but he or she must be well prepared."

It is hard for those who are blind to find employment in Poland, but they must make the effort if they are to have a chance. They also have to restructure the benefits system to eliminate work disincentives. Few older people will work again, but the young will work if they get an education, develop effective blindness skills, and maintain a spirit of pride and independence.

The Poles enjoy dancing and singing. Each evening after dinner, we met in the lounge for good music and friendship. The Poles taught many of us that we could relax and enjoy dancing and singing with them.

Midway through the seminars, we took a day to go sight seeing. Our hosts took us to the ancient city of Krakow. They introduced us to a thousand years of Polish history. Along the road we passed the exit for Auschwitz. We visited a school for blind children and drove past new suburban developments that reflect the prosperity of the growing middle class in the new free market Poland. Our Polish friends took us to the cathedral where Pope John Paul II served as Bishop of Krakow. We listened to monks chant ancient prayers, and felt the power of the church in Poland. We visited the Old Town, where every quarter hour, a trumpeter reenacts the warning given a millennium ago as Tartar invaders came near. We walked in the courtyard of the six hundred year old University of Krakow. They took us shopping for souvenirs, and we bought gifts to take home. Dragons and cut glass, and especially jewelry made from silver and amber found their way into our bags. We stood with our friends in the presence of a thousand years of culture. We understood better the courage and endurance of the Polish people, and their abiding love of freedom.

We understood that their blindness and ours bond us together in a global community. We hoped our experiences might help them, but we knew that they would best be sustained in the hard days ahead by the Polish spirit that they have inherited from forty generations of suffering and never giving in to despair. They sing and dance, and they love freedom.

We returned to our lodgings with a greater respect for the Polish nation, and a deeper faith in the ability of our new friends to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

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