This profile is dedicated to the memory of late Piotr Janaszek. It was prepared when Piotr was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998. Piotr Janaszek is creating a new system which provides employment options for disabled youth in rural areas and combats the opinion held by many rural residents, that the disabled are a burden to the farm and unemployable.
The New Idea
Piotr Janaszek has concluded that current social services for the disabled in Poland are not able to address the unique problems and issues of rural residents. He has set out to fill the void in disability services. Piotr is introducing a new concept in care that addresses unproductive sheltered workshops which fail to teach people skills that are applicable to their real life situations. In place of the sheltered workshop system, Piotr is establishing vocational training centers located on farms instead of the usual urban areas. All of the participants, regardless of their abilities and limitations, are taught skills that will make them productive contributors to family farms, thus destroying the perception that they are a lifetime burden for their relatives.
World Health Organization and Polish Ministry of Health statistics show that between 1978 and 1993 the number of disabled people in the country increased by 83 percent, and, in rural areas, by 118 percent. Many experts attribute this rapid rise in the disabled population in part to environmental problems. In 1993 the government estimated that there were over two million disabled people in rural Poland of which over half were under the age of 25. The same study also found a dramatic gap in the education level of rural disabled youth and their urban counterparts. As a result of this dramatic gap, rural disabled youth find it very difficult to move into employment. This leads to what experts call an "elimination from education and rehabilitation." This, subsequently, leads to social marginalization and a passive resignation to such a fate.
In 1992, after over 20 years of working in hospitals and clinics as a medical doctor, Piotr started his own rehabilitation center in the rural town of Konin. The center is administered by the Mielnica Foundation which Piotr started in 1989 and now serves over 600 persons per year. The Foundation also trains 270 staff and volunteers per year and runs a sports club for the disabled, which has over 30 members. It runs a hostel staffed by disabled people that provides housing for mothers and children who are traveling in the region. The Foundation also helps young people to set up their own business ventures; one young person confined to a wheelchair, with the use of only one thumb, has established with Piotr's help a successful advertising venture. Piotr and the Mielnica Foundation are now well recognized in Poland for national programs for disabled tourism, sports clubs, and summer camps. Piotr has also been a leader in the creation of new legislation to guarantee the rights of the disabled and expands their activities.
Piotr's vision of training disabled youth in farming was difficult to realize because he did not have a farm of his own. However, recent legal reforms have made it possible for the state to give his organization a previously government owned farm. As a result, Piotr is establishing a cooperative farm managed and staffed by the disabled. At this center the young people learn skills that are based upon their ability level and their real-life environment. For example, young people confined to wheelchairs are taught to breed rabbits. When they return to their family farms, they have a marketable skill that can help their family make a profit. Others are taught to grow herbs or breed other small animals. People with higher cognitive abilities attend classes on modern farm practices so that they can return to their villages and train others. Some people are also trained to work with more severely disabled young people. By the year 2000, Piotr hopes that though aggressive government lobbying and work with local officials, he will be able to establish similar farms in every rural county in Poland, creating an institutional framework for 50,000 young people to receive training each year.
Piotr's grandfather was a famous innovator in the field of orthopedics and invented several orthopedic devices that are still being used today. Piotr's mother was also very active in such youth activities as scouting. When Piotr was eighteen, he volunteered at a orthopedic clinic and witnessed the suffering of disabled young people firsthand. He began a scouting troop for the children that is still in existence and has become quite famous for the summer camps that it helps to organize for disabled children. In recognition of his tireless efforts to help children Piotr was awarded the prestigious Order of the Smile.