Pioneering the Polish disabled women’s movement

We sat down with Bootcamp grad Magda Szarota, one of Poland’s leading activists fighting for disability rights. Read about her experiences, from advocating at the UN and building grassroots movements.

Hi Magda, tell us a bit about yourself and your work fighting for Polish disability rights.

I am a disabled woman with invisible impairments. Because of that, I like to think of myself as a bridge between disabled and non-disabled people.

In Poland, disabled people are framed as being tragic victims of fate who should be ‘helped’ by charities (known as the ‘medical’ model of disability). At Humanity in Action, the organisation I co-run with Monika Mazur-Rafał, we are trying to shift this approach towards the social model of disability, where disabled people are treated as equal citizens. Our leadership and staff is made up of non-disabled and disabled people, which is still rare in human rights organizations.

Through my PhD I intend to prove that disabled women’s activism is an important intellectual endeavour. I am saying: these activists are problematizing ‘disability’ as a concept and broadening what is known about disability as a lived experience. The tools they are using are just different to typical academic tools and channels of distributing knowledge.

You are part of a grassroots movement of disabled women fighting for your rights in Poland. What were the initial aims of your movement and your views on working with allies?

The aim of our movement in Poland was to come together as a group of disabled women, moving beyond a ‘safe space’ into activism. We prioritise our standpoint and expertise, rather than have non-disabled people always speaking for us or (or not speaking about disability at all).

This doesn’t mean we are rejecting non-disabled allies, but the relationship has to be shaped carefully. We’ve been in the margins for so long, so we have to claim our ground and our voice really clearly.

I am excited to be testing other ways of advocating for disabled women’s issues. With a fab group of feminist activists and scholars, we established an informal feminist collective called Article 6* made up of disabled and non-disabled women.

What’s on your mind as an activist at the moment?

I am still preoccupied with the advocacy process that started in 2018, when Poland was monitored by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I was responsible for advocating on behalf of disabled women and girls in Poland.

To offer my expertise on the issue I flew to Geneva to take part, even though I was in-between hospitals at the time. It was quite risky but I thought, ‘If I die there, I’m fine with that.’ I had to go.

Essentially, the UN committee’s task was to find out what the government has done to improve the lives of disabled people, since the Polish state ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012.

Together with the brilliant Amanda McRae from the Women Enabled International, I co-authored and presented the first shadow-report solely focused on the situation of disabled girls and women in Poland.

Wow! What did the UN committee conclude?

It was a transformative experience. Most of the UN committee members were disabled themselves, or amazing non-disabled allies. They really listened, asked just the right questions, and were insightfully critical of what was said.

The concluding observations came out and it was effing amazing! It was a historic moment for the Polish disability movement.

The committee prioritised what the grassroots disability community reported, over the story presented by the authorities. They concluded that two main issues in Poland need urgent attention: the experiences of Polish disabled women and independent living.

I realised that if you are persistent enough, find the right people and communicate in an honest way, there can be concrete outcomes at the highest level.

Congratulations, that’s brilliant. What are you doing now to follow up?

We don’t want the UN concluding observations to be forgotten by the authorities or the general public. In September 2019 Article 6 organised the first national meet-up for disabled women in Poland, supported by FemFund. That was a great sign of feminists who understand the importance of our activism and quite a milestone in the Polish third-sector.

The convention was brilliant. Disabled women from around the country participated, including women who were institutionalised. We came up with our own declaration and publicized it in the media. The Polish Ombudsman even gave an opening speech, stressing the importance of framing the issues of disabled women as human rights issues.

A year has passed now, but we have to keep the fire going.

*The name ‘Article 6’ is in reference to the article of UN CRPD that covers the issues of disabled girls and women.

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