Reality of the handicapped in Poland and around the world

Over a billion people in the world have some kind of disability.

This is about 15% of the world’s population, and the number of people with disabilities is constantly increasing. Almost everyone can experience some form of disability (temporary or permanent) at some point in their life. That is related to the aging population and the increase of chronic diseases. Less than 190 million people (over the age of 15 – 3.8% of the population) have great difficulties in functioning and very often require constant care.

In Poland, the number of people with disabilities is over 3 million, which is 10% of the adults. People with a significant degree of disability constitute 27.4%, with moderate disability – 47.3%, and with mild disability – 25.3%. However, it should be assumed that the actual number of people with disabilities is much higher, because in the research only people (over 16) who have a legal disability certificate were listed.

Countries with lower GDP have a higher disability rate than rich countries.

Those countries which have higher income can afford fund programs which support people with disabilities, especially in the fields of education or health. Unfortunately, in poorer countries, state aid is insufficient, and thus the social exclusion of this group increases. Disability affects more often poorer people, the elderly and women.

People with disabilities rarely receive sufficient healthcare.

Despite of the Article 25 of the UN Convention on the People Rights with Disabilities (which talks about strength the right of people with disabilities to receive the highest quality health care, without discrimination), a small number of countries in the world provide people with disabilities the quality of healthcare at a high level. 

The data show that people with disabilities experience almost four times more often ill-treatment by medical services, and almost three times more often are refused healthcare. 50% of disabled people do not have adequate financial resources to receive treatment and other medical care.

Disabled people twice as often as non-disabled people assess the competencies of medical staff as inadequate and insufficient. Moreover, disabled people, are trying to gain access to healthcare, encounter many obstacles on their way, e.g. high costs of medical care and transport, limited availability of specialized tests and services, architectural barriers in medical facilities, difficulties with the availability of appropriately adapted equipment (e.g. no height adjustment on examination tables for cervical or breast cancer tests, maladjusted mammography equipment for women on wheelchairs).

Based on the study „Accessibility of the healthcare services for people with disabilities. The analysis and recommendations „commissioned by the Ombudsman in 2020, Poland is also struggling with very similar problems. In Poland people with disabilities have difficult, and sometimes have even impossible access to healthcare. This is related not only to architectural and financial barriers, but often simply to the communication barriers and the lack of appropriate competences of medical staff.

It is especially noticeable in crisis situations such as the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic. People with disabilities have experienced many difficulties regarding the availability of information about the coronavirus and its spread, medical assistance in the case of illness SARS-CoV-2. Press releases and state conferences were not adapted for disabled people (e.g. the translator was not sufficiently visible on the screen). Very difficult access to information via special hotlines, untrained medical staff working with disabled people – these are some problems that emerged at that time.

Children with disabilities have also limited access to education.

The lack of adequate education for people with disabilities is evident in all age groups and in every country. This trend is most visible in poorer countries. Looking at education in Indonesia, the difference between the percentage of disabled children and non-disabled children learning at school is as high as 60%. In India, this difference is around 10%. That shows how big the problem is on a global scale.

Even in Poland, it can be noticed that people with disabilities rarely have higher education (11% of all disabled people), and more often they finish their education at vocational or secondary school (28% and 29%, respectively). Over one third of disabled people in Poland have primary or incomplete primary education. These data show that there is a need for a holistic approach towards education and the entire education system of people with disabilities. Too low or incomplete education largely affects the economic activity of this social group.

Unemployment affects people with disabilities to a greater extent than people without disabilities.

Only 44% of people with disabilities from OECD countries were employed (this rate for non-disabled people was 75%). There is a large discrepancy in the employment of women and men. Disabled men more often find a job (53%) than disabled women (20%).

According to data from 2019 in Poland, only 28.8% of disabled people at working age are economically active. 

Poverty more often affects disabled people than non-disabled people.

This is probably caused by lower education and greater difficulty in finding employment. Their work often is underpaid. In addition, there are expenses for medical care, rehabilitation, specialized assistive equipment for the help of caregivers or assistants. As a result, people with disabilities are exposed to worse living conditions, e.g. lack of access to sanitation and clean water, food is poor, housing situation is worse.

In Poland, a household with at least one disabled person is significantly more exposed to poverty. In that case, the relative poverty line indicator in 2017 was over 19%.

Rehabilitation significantly increases independence and functioning.

Unfortunately, these services are still at a low level in many countries. As the data WHO shows, based on the example of four South African countries, the percentage of people who received the necessary rehabilitation was 26-55%, and the necessary rehabilitation equipment (including hearing aids, prostheses, wheelchairs) was received by 17-37% of people.

Looking at the needs of the Polish disabled people, the most common problems in this area are difficulty in finding rehabilitation at appropriate level, long waiting time for available appointments in the state healthcare and, consequently, maintenance of the continuity of appointments. The amount of co-financing from PFRON destined for the purchase of appropriate rehabilitation equipment (e.g. prostheses) or co-financing of rehabilitation is often insufficient. These are the needs to participate in rehabilitation appointments or the availability of medical equipment that were most often mentioned as very important, and even crucial for people with disabilities.

Disabled people do not fully participate in social life.

More than 40% of disabled people suffer from unmet needs of everyday life. In the United States, 70% of adults depend on another person in their daily activities.

In Poland, the most frequently expressed need of people with disabilities participating in the „Research on the disable people needs” is to be treated like a normal person. Almost 25% of disabled people who filled the questionnaire often feel lonely. The highest percentage concerns mentally ill people or people with motor dysfunction (although the study shows a high level of satisfaction in this group of social life).

The social exclusion of people with disabilities can be reduced through the help of inclusive government policies.

Countries should develop national strategies and implement action plans for the social integration of the disabled people, and based on those, provide adequate funds to support inclusion measures. Also, what plays an important role is promoting access to various types of services, creating integration and activation programs for disabled people, education reforms, improving access to the labour market, conducting research and analyzing data related to disabled people. It is also crucial to involve people with disabilities in the implementation of actions and the development of strategies and to increase public awareness of disability.

The Convention on the Disabled People Rights (CRPD) protects, promotes, and ensures the human rights of all persons with disabilities.

So far, more than 170 countries and organizations which are dealing with regional integration have signed the convention, and more than 130 countries have already ratified it. Reports presented by WHO and the World Bank contain data and research related to improve the health and well-being of people with disabilities. They are in line with the Convention on the Disable People Rights.

Improvement of the progress has already been made in the situation of people with disabilities and their social inclusion, but data and research show that there is still a lot of work to be done. Much more work is needed to meet the needs of people with disabilities, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. People with disabilities encounter disproportionately more  barriers on their way.

Agata Żuławnik, Redaktor Bloga Work 4 Life, wolontariusz
translated by: Magdalena Antonik


  1. As per the data from the Research on the Economic Activity of Polish Society conducted by the General Statistical Office. Statistics from the mid-2019.
  3. Research „Accessibility of the healthcare for the people with disabilities. Analysis and recommendation” commissioned by the European Ombudsman
  8. Research commissioned by PFRON, “Research on Analysis of the handicapped”
  9. Research commissioned by PFRON, “Research on Analysis of the handicapped”
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