In Poland, disabled protest camp puts pressure on govt

Varsovie (AFP) –


Sitting in wheelchairs or lying on blankets, a handful of young disabled Poles have spent the past month camped out at the Polish parliament, demanding the government increase their meagre living allowance.

Unable to fend for themselves, many have been accompanied by their parents, but their plight has also drawn support from the wider public.

But the sit-in has also drawn criticism from lawmakers in the governing rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party who argue it has been orchestrated by the liberal opposition to tarnish the government's image.

The protesters are demanding a new monthly benefit of 120 euros ($141) in addition to the meagre state payments they currently receive and changes to a benefits system for caregivers.

Unable to come and go freely, the protesters are relying on the goodwill of opposition lawmakers and parliamentary staffers to bring them food and other necessities from a nearby white tent housing donations.

- A show of support -

"I brought food, sanitary products and adult diapers," Warsaw pensioner Zofia Kozielska told AFP, standing next to piles of biscuits, tinned food and fruit juice.

Another pensioner who volunteered to do their laundry dropped off freshly-washed and pressed clothes, in what she said was a gesture of support for the protesters' mothers.

"These women are so brave, this is the least I can do to support them," she told AFP, declining to give her name.

Since the protest began a month ago, officials have restricted access to parliament -- and to the protesters -- for visitors and non-accredited journalists.

And on Wednesday, when the head of respected NGO Polish Humanitarian Action, who is herself disabled and uses crutches to walk, turned up, she was also prevented from visiting the protesters.

"I'd hoped that a handicapped person like myself who has devoted their life to helping the underprivileged would be given access," Janina Ochojska told reporters as she leaned on the metal barricades set up around parliament in recent months.

- A drop in the bucket -

Ochojska said the extra 120 euros they were demanding was just "a drop in the bucket" in terms of the money needed to cover the costs of physiotherapy or equipment.

Although the PiS swept to power in 2015 promising generous social welfare benefits, the government has dismissed the protest as political and sought to convince the demonstrators to leave.

"Their political motivation is clear," Marek Suski, chief of staff for Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, told public broadcaster Polish Radio.

Liberal "opposition lawmakers visit the protesters every day to give them instructions," he alleged.

But the protesters insist they are completely apolitical, saying they made similar demands of the previous liberal administration.

In opposition at the time, PiS lawmakers had vowed to help them.

- Sleeping on the floor -

Last month, the government offered to increase the monthly disability allowance by 39 euros, hiking it to 245 euros.

But the protesters say the offer fell short of their expectations, insisting on their demand for an extra 120 euros.

Those with disabilities are also entitled to one pair of orthopaedic shoes per year and one wheelchair every five years, while caregivers are entitled to a monthly 200-euro payment -- on condition they have no other income.

Although this condition was ruled unconstitutional by a Polish court in 2014, it remains in effect today.

Protesters also have rejected the PiS government's latest proposal which involves taxing the wealthiest Poles to cover the cost of new welfare payments for the disabled.

"The money will just get lost in the state bureaucracy and our children will never see it," said Iwona Hartwich, who has been protesting inside parliament alongside her 23-year-old son Jakub.

And he is insistent that they "won't give up" their demands.

"The first 10 days were difficult, we were sleeping on the bare floor," he told AFP.

"Now it's much better. People brought us mattresses."