Disability is no handicap to work

Disability is no handicap to work 30/10/2009

Andrzej LubowieckiAndrzej Lubowiecki used to work in the shipyards in the town of Gdynia, part of the urban area of Gdansk, on Poland’s Baltic coast.

In their heyday, the historic shipyards provided jobs for some 20,000 people. Now only about 3,000 workers remain.

Nonetheless, for 12 years Andrzej had a well-paid and secure job first as a carpenter, and then as a painter. Until, in 2001, mounting pain forced him to undergo a hip-replacement operation in a local hospital. But the surgery went wrong, a nerve was cut by mistake, he says, and instead of becoming more mobile again he could only walk with the aid of crutches. He was unable to return to work, and after 180 days his employer dismissed him.

With only manual skills at his disposal and jobs in short supply, Andrzej resigned himself to living on disablement benefits. He couldn’t afford the cost of retraining. “I didn’t think I would ever find work, because of my disability,” he explains. He was unemployed for five years, until the day he noticed a poster on a bus advertising work opportunities for ‘partially disabled’ people. “I went straight to the job centre and registered as unemployed. Two days later they told me about the training scheme.” In June 2006, he enrolled on a four-day course co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund, tailored to the needs of disabled people, and offering advice on job-seeking, compiling a CV and applying for work. The local authority, one of the partners, provided a minibus to pick him up from home each day.

Determination pays off

“After the course it took me just one day to find a job,” declares Andrzej proudly. “At the interview, I showed them I really wanted it.” A local security firm took him on and trained him to use a computer. He works in the central office, with a staff of six, responsible for monitoring operations around the Gdansk area, collecting data, and if necessary alerting the police to security breaches. He is on duty for 24 hours at a time, followed by 48 hours off, including weekends and holidays, with every third weekend off. “In the beginning, I got very sleepy in the middle of the night, but now I am used to it,” he says, although he still has problems getting to sleep when his shift finishes. Since his pay is low, he retains his disablement benefit.

Andrzej’s wife Ania is a kindergarten teacher, and leaves home at 6am. “At first, not working was great,” he recalls. “Ania would make me a list of jobs. I used to go shopping and then sit down and have a beer.” But as time wore on, he began to feel the strain, both financial and psychological. Fortunately, they had bought their flat in a housing scheme, with a loan from the shipyard, just before his operation. Until that time, the family lived in one room at Ania’s parents’ place. “But the worst part about being unemployed was when everybody went on holiday in the summer, and the boys had to stay at home because we had no money,” he explains. Now he has a regular income, they are able to plan a holiday in the mountains.

A typical day for Andrzej, when he is not at work, involves waking their two sons, Karol, 16, and Przemek, 14, preparing their breakfast and seeing them off to school. He has always enjoyed cooking, and used to swap recipes with Ania’s friends. “Wild mushroom soup with noodles is my speciality,” says Andrzej, who gathers his own mushrooms in the countryside and enjoys fishing. He also decorated their home and built fitted cupboards. “I’ve always been adaptable – I can do everything around the house. ‘A man is an animal that will learn anything!’”

Back to normal

Andrzej says he feels “100% better” with a job. “It’s logical that being out of work doesn’t make you feel good,” he points out. “Some people just get drunk, but I’m not like that. The course has given me confidence that, despite my disability, I know what I need to do to get a job.”

“In the beginning I was happy to have a ‘househusband’,” adds Ania. “But I started to realise that Andrzej was quite stressed. When he had to go out and meet people he wasn’t comfortable at all. Now everything is back to normal, and we share the chores at home.”

“It was a successful project,” confirms course coordinator Anna Dabrowska from the Fundacja Gospodarcza training centre. “We are running similar initiatives for people with disabilities all the time, offering vocational training or advice on setting up their own company. That is very popular now, because they can get a grant from the EU.”

Andrzej would also like to start his own business, repainting shipping containers. He is pursuing compensation through the courts for the operation that left him handicapped, and is still bitter about it. But in July 2008, a replacement operation on his other hip was successful, and now he can get around with just a stick. He knows he is better off than many others. “Disabled people in Poland are generally not employed,” he says. “It’s difficult for them to get about, and companies don’t want to take them on. But here, the city is trying to improve facilities.”