It was three years ago. I was lying on a beach in Portugal. My wife was wading at will somewhere in the sea yet at a certain distance from me. My eyes were closed, I was listening to the swoosh of the ocean and birdsong. Suddenly, I felt a kiss on my cheek, but somehow cold. What is happening? She is relatively far away, so this must be someone else, it crossed my mind. I opened my eyes, yet that did not solve the puzzle as I was unable to see anyone. And no-one spoke to me, either. A moment later, an unknown woman came up to me, regretting the behaviour of her Labrador bitch that had poked me with that cold nose of her – Sorry, this is my dog, my Lab, she said.
Dog lovers know very well that a dog’s kiss is pleasant, an encouragement to start an adventure, game or play, yet if offered out of a sudden it seems merely wet and cold and one does not know what is happening. If one is blind, that effect intensifies and may lead to major astonishment, initially not necessarily pleasant. Joy, warmth and desire to play come somewhat later.
This is a good metaphor for a sequence of powerful life experiences. Losing sight surprised me, chilled me like that cold kiss, only aggravated by multiple failures and being humiliated, a result of unequal treatment on grounds of disability. This has happened and continues to happen in all aspects of life. Nevertheless, the place I am in now, the success of inclusive education at the Jagiellonian University, the development of the notion of the Manager of the Future as well as the impact I can make on social innovations as part of Ashoka represent the other side: warmth, joy and a great adventure. Still, people often ask me about my experience of disability as something absolutely critical, something that has shaped me and had a major influence upon my life. Certainly, that impact has been major, yet even considerable disability is never the only factor shaping a person. What else has it been then?
I was born and raised in Krakow’s working-class district of Nowa Huta. Not all Krakow residents liked it and it possibly remains the case, yet it was just there that the Solidarity movement took solid roots. A movement embracing millions of ordinary people to whom Jon Anderson dedicated an unforgettable piece entitled Polonaise. My childhood came during the “Solidarity carnival” period as well as, regrettably, Marshal Law which followed. On the one hand, I have seen true solidarity, assistance offered to others, cooperation in very difficult and sometimes extreme situations, and on the other hand street violence and the totalitarian state’s attempt to destroy all that was good and what the movement had sown among the people. “A picture like from Wajda’s film: a banner, clouds of smoke,” the bard Jacek Kaczmarski once sang and such were exactly the images that fed my daily experience back then. Teargas stinging the eyes was an integral part of it. When I recall it, I immediately see before my eyes a huge crowd of people holding a white-and-red flag extended across the width of the street with a slogan Solidarność written on it in a characteristic font. The crowd starts off at the church and a line of riot militiamen armed up to the teeth brandishing long white truncheons can be seen on the horizon. Wherever one looks, to the left and to the right, there are paddy wagons, water cannons and armed vehicles. The crowd is moving in that direction. With Mum, we are walking along the lay-by yet and a child’s mind is working intensively: what is going to happen? And just when it seemed that a confrontation was unavoidable, the militiamen got an order to withdraw, they are running and getting into the cars. A confrontation did come, multiplied, yet at that particular junction violence lost. That beautiful image remains in my memory, as I was worried then about those people and that banner.
And then it was 1986, when the retina became detached on my left eye, and the right one a year later. After the surgery, I woke up with patches on my eyes and the head tied with a bandage. In a famous clinic in Katowice, another boy was lying somewhere nearby after the same treatment. We both had been told that we would regain sight, imperfect but still, because the hospital was good and had the best equipment in the country and the doctors were talented.
Soon after regaining consciousness, I still heard a conversation between nurses:
– Bartek has had a great surgery. Professor is very happy. The boy is going to see.
– And Irek? – the other one asked.
And then I understood in just few seconds that my life was changing very much. I also sensed the helplessness of those who wanted to help me yet medicine failed. Still, those nurses were first to somehow intuitively offer me great assistance. For hours on end, I would talk to them in their office and then over the phone once out of hospital. It is indeed hard to believe today that there was no clinical psychologist on hand who could talk to me about that massive change I was experiencing. That role was played by sisters Ola, Renata and others. Since then, I have met at least one such Ola, Renata, Agnieszka or Gosia. I am truly very lucky to have been able to meet them all.
Since the time of that chitchat in nurses’ rooms, I have also had a slight weakness for a 1980s musical style known as Italo disco, something real connoisseurs always hold against me. Yet it was the music that accompanied my long conversations with the nurses, laughing girls with whom I shared jokes but also possibly first plans concerning my changed life. One of my dreams I held on to was to learn. That was not easy a year before the fall of communism in Poland. The poor country faced many problems that needed to be resolved. I was granted individualised tuition and then attended a special school for blind and partially sighted persons in Krakow. It was not a dream place for me, though. I wanted to attend an ordinary school and return to a normal life. I also had another dream – to work in the radio. Everybody laughed that off.
– You will be a piano tuner, they would say. But I love music and feel no vocation to tune instruments.
– You will be a masseur. It pays well. People like to use the services of blind masseurs. I like getting massage indeed but do not feel like massaging other people. I want to work in the radio. I am into music and social transformation.
In 1989, a new government was appointed, led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister in East-Central Europe after the Second World War. This is the year when I decided to return to an ordinary school and began education in the Comprehensive Secondary School no 11 in Nowa Huta, right next to the junction where a few years earlier riot militiamen had tried to block the passage of a marching crowd carrying the banner with “Solidarność” written on it. Further change came soon, too: systemic, social and economic.
While studying at the School no 11, I got a foothold in a local radio station and began to play music there. That was youthful and inexperienced journalism, yet at least some people stopped laughing. Then I changed to another, now inexistent, private station where we played lots of what we now call golden hits and from time to time also the immortal Italo disco.
After secondary school completion, I started my dream journalistic studies. I would meet people from groups affected by the system change. There were too many of them. Yet I still believed the direction of the reforms was right, as was the implementation of market economy principles. I tried to collect material related to those who were excluded from being part of growth and development, more vulnerable, marginalised. The radio was the first place when I felt that it was possible that I, in turn, could show solidarity with others by making their problems heard. After my studies, I initiated cooperation with the Reportage and Documentary Studio of the Polish Radio and made a number of reportage footage focusing on social issues.
I used my personal experiences from the period of my studies and the newly acquired knowledge when creating an innovative university unit dealing with educational support for persons excluded from education as such, including higher education. That was a very difficult task. It may suffice to say that years ago one of my superiors at the university called it “invasive”, meaning destroying mainstream thinking about what the university should be about. In this context, it is only fitting to quote my friend who at the same time was doing the same in Denmark. Willy has always said that “Although the university is not for everybody, as it is for the best, when you are disabled and despite your disability you are good, then the university is also for you and it must adjust to your specific needs.” That is a university I wanted to build with like-minded people. Over time, it seemed that also those who resented that “invasion” got used to that vision.
I am glad that after nearly two decades of building it, we can now offer support even in most difficult situations, for instance to a student who is bed-bound at home and dependent on life-supporting appliances. In the circumstances, they pursue their studies in distance-learning format.
That was exactly the case of Jacek. Because of his ill health, other universities refused to have him as a student. His key dream was to be able to learn. I then thought it was back to the past for me.
One had to hold examinations at the student’s home and come up with how to take lecture notes for him and make it possible to transfer them. He also required assistance when establishing contact with those deciding about his affairs as a university student. All this ended successfully on the part of Jacek, his institute and the entire university. We were proud of that student’s achievement as well as the solidarity-based cooperation he inspired in his teachers and various university units. Now persons unable to leave home do indeed study on the basis of the same operational model which can be called standard. I am glad that together with my team I have been able to help Jacek make his dream come true, thus reducing the number of cold kisses life would constantly give him and others who have been – and are – breaking through the barricades of the Polish educational system in order to be able to fully participate in it.
The experiences related to the implementation of inclusive education at Poland’s oldest university were decidedly a very important aspect as I was going through the long and difficult verification process to be selected a Polish Ashoka Fellow in 2017. Along the way, I was supported by my close collaborators and people I had met relatively recently seeking to develop the idea of the Manager of the Future with them. I felt solidarity from others yet again. And so on the occasion I recalled fondly that banner from the early 1980s. The slogan put on it is no political motto to me, and even less the name of a trade union: it is an internal imperative, a calling for acting with others and for others. This is also, I think, one of the values on which sustainable social development should be based. No matter where I am abroad and talk about Poland, nearly everybody associates it with just “Solidarity” and the name of its legendary leader. This is our trademark. What is more, during many interesting conferences I hear about solidarity as social cement that today’s capitalism needs in order to mitigate the differences it causes. Discussants are either heavyweight professors from eminent universities or important managers arguing that the corporations they lead must operate on the basis of true values.
When as a child I walked with Mum along the streets of Nowa Huta, when the unfurled banner was moving in the clouds of smoke, when teargas was biting my eyes with vengeance and the streets were full of militiamen, I could not have imagined that one day I would be given the opportunity to stand before the leaders of that great social movement and shake their hands. When I think about it, I remember the lyrics of yet another song by Jacek Kaczmarski about sentimental Miss S.: “And she was carried on the shoulders of her new young friends who worshipped her like an old star, not falling but suddenly rising instead.”
This text includes excerpts from my speech on the occasion of a membership in Ashoka, an international network of social innovators. It was delivered at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw on 20 October 2017.
For those of you who are interested, songs mentioned in the text:
John Anderson „Polonaise”:
Jacek Kaczmarski „Świadectwo”:
Translated by Mikołaj Sekrecki