The Society of Mad Wheelchairman’s Friendship, called TPSW
(TPSW – Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Szalonego Wózkowicza)
– alternative attitudes towards disability, action against social exclusion
In February 2010 I had an accident: my wheelchair got caught between a metro train and the platform as a follow up to this, persuaded by my friends I published a film in the internet, which unexpectedly resulted in setting up a foundation. My peaceful job of a translator had to be set aside, replaced by the TPSW. The TPSW Foundation was registered in October 2010, it has been active for less than a year and a half and became an NGO half a year ago.
There have always been two main objectives for me: changing the image of people with disabilities and acting against social exclusion.
The first objective is a protest against the way we, the people on wheelchairs, are being perceived as poor, incapable, gloomy, broken down, non-creative and left alone to face their hard lives. Unfortunately, this is the image well supported by the media: we are the people who need sympathy or we are the heroes. The image I have in mind and try to represent myself is quite different. I want people on wheelchairs to be creative, resourceful, cheerful, happy with their personal and social life, working and active. It is incredibly important for persons with disabilities to believe in themselves and to give themselves a chance for better, more interesting lives. Also, those who do not suffer from disabilities should consider it important to offer us a chance for such a life, invite us to share life with them and should support us in our weaknesses. I personally support equal opportunities instead of total care. When an entrance or a lift is adjusted for my wheelchair I become a person living with disability not a disabled person; I just move in a different manner.
Now for the second objective: acting against social exclusion.
The omnipresent barriers, fashionable stairs, deep drains so loved by road constructors, the purchase of means of transport not adjusted for the disabled, the construction and renovating of buildings without making them accessible to us – I perceive all these as exclusion and discrimination against persons with disabilities. The TPSW also strongly objects to:
· the general acceptance of cultural, artistic and educational objects being beyond our reach,
· the lack of systematic regulations for equal opportunities, mainly in labour law,
· loopholes in construction law which allow frequent derogations,
· pension traps which disqualify us for employment while receiving some benefits,
· there being no flats with special adjustments (as alternatives to residential care homes),
· the lack of personal-assistants systems and many other aspects that create the feeling of being rejects, omitted and sentenced to a life of exclusion among the other persons with disabilities.
However, we are not blood-seeking nor violent revolutionaries; we decided for craziness to be part of our name to reflect how difficult it is to face the challenges and try to change the existing reality and still believe in transformation to be possible. Constantly, we use any opportunity to change people and provoke action in unison. I am fully aware that changing everything at once is not likely and that the greatest barriers are those in people’s minds. Therefore, we try to reach into their minds by explaining and illustrating, by means of funny films or by means of direct demonstration of the problems as they are, and giving clues of how the problem can be solved.
Our action on Trakt Królewski and other streets of Warsaw can serve as a good example here. We understand that many monuments are located there and that many premises of public use are rented by tenants, so we suggested using portable access ramps, which can be made available upon request, without interfering with the structure of the building. Approximately 40 places have been made accessible this way.
We participate in talks aiming at creating access to the Warsaw Metro, we cooperate with Polish Railways PKP Intercity and Koleje Mazowieckie, with the Warsaw Authorities, Niepełnosprawnik (a database of places accessible to disabled persons), Siskom (a map of barriers), ZTM (the Warsaw public transport authority) and many other institutions and non-Governmental organisations. As it turns out, in most cases, thinking and acting in advance is often more than enough without resorting to the most expensive solutions.
Another example is our proposal to liquidate the long-outstanding barriers on the crossroads of Aleje Jerozolimskie with Jana Pawła, Emilii Plater and other roundabouts, by creating separate routes for bikes and wheelchairs. If coming off the pavement into such a route is made possible, places now only reserved for those who can use underground passes would be accessible to all. This solution is cheaper than building lifts and does not require construction alterations giving access to tram platforms, which are currently completely unavailable.
We recently suggested, for instance, that non-adjusted tram and bus stops should be listed and exhibited in buses and trams so that people on wheelchairs and those with prams (parents with children) or elderly people are warned that they have to face difficulties. Only where it is possible we suggest building ramps, hoists or lifts. We are against installing stair lifts for public access as they are often damaged and broken easily.
Hence, I would suggest building a ramp at the main entrance to the Warsaw City Hall (the side entrances are blocked by cars), installing power-driven entrance doors, removing the stair lift and replacing it with a small ramp on the left side to the level of the cloakroom and the next one going higher (after the removal of the banister). As a result there is a chance for independent, non-assisted entrance, which is not likely to break, and the recovered stair lift can be used at the province Governor’s HQ, with its conference rooms, which are inaccessible due to very steep stairs.
The most common problem is the lack of thinking with the general picture in mind. The best solution would be in creating a team made up of a person in a wheelchair, a person with hearing disabilities and a visually-impaired person, and using such team of specialists as consultants when necessary. Also the official representative body in all matters regarding Governmental Actions for Persons with Disabilities should be made up of such persons and not fully-capable individuals who do not experience real problems personally. For most of the officials our problems are only part of their job while for us they constitute our lives. As citizens entitled to exercising their rights in full we do not require special privileges. However, as rightful beneficiaries of all rights, we demand changes in the law which would give us equality and remove impossibilities resulting from limited efficiency. TPSW is working on these prerogatives.
The work we undertook is non-profit-making, as we are passionate activists who believe that working for persons with disabilities makes a lot of sense, while people with prams, elderly people and people on bikes may also benefit from it. This is because the world that is friendly to us, cannot be unfriendly to others. And when the abilities and independence of some future candidates for wheelchair users deteriorate they may find the world according to TPSW much more accommodating.