Activism is to be danced

Photo: Kasia Pierzchała, the picture shows a person moving on a wheelchair dancing on a stage of a theater with people without visible disabilities.

Katarzyna Żeglicka is an activist, dancer and a WenDo trainer. She works for the cause of women with disabilities in the organisation called Strefa Wenus z Milo and Autonomia Foundation. She lives and works in Krakow.

You are engaged in activism for women with disabilities and LGTBQ+. You are a performer, a choreographer, a WenDo trainer and a culture animator. I am not surprised that your favourite word is energy, you need to have a lot of it to be engaged in so many different activities. What gives you the energy to act?

In the past, I gained my energy from anger, which resulted from my experiences as a woman and a person with disabilities. I tried to use that anger creatively. Presently, I am tired with energy derived from rebellion and I feel exhausted with activism. I found strength in dancing, in body awareness, on the dance floor, where I can allow myself for a scream and exhaustion. This is the way for me to give vent for negative energy and everyday anger.

How can I imagine that? What forms of expression does your everyday anger take?

Except for dancing, it vents in verbalisation, in talking about what I am angry about, what I experienced, about institution violence, about everyday discrimination which I experience because of my sex and disability. The safest place where I can speak without any reservations about everything I experience is my queer family – my partner, our dog Vuk and several closest people. I am trying to link my well-being not only with creative work but also with working out the negative experiences on a regular basis.

Your engagement in disability causes does not get exhausted by occasional demonstrations. You practice activism every day by co-creating Strefa Wenus z Milo organisation and Autonomia Foundation. Can you tell us something more about those places, what you are dealing with?

I am a member of the Autonomia Foundation council. I represent the perspective of women with disabilities. I have been collaborating with the Foundation for many years. I have organised with trainers workshops on assertiveness and WenDo self-defence for women and girls. I take part in events during which I may mark my perspective on women with disabilities.

Whereas Strefa Wenus z Milo is the first feminist organisation in Poland representing women with disabilities. Three people set it up four years ago: Aneta Bilincka, Agnieszka Czulak and I. This year, I managed to get a fund for the organisation development from Batory Foundation. Finally, after 5 years, I do not work for free. I am now on a contract, I work for women with disabilities, I organise workshops. We set up a self-help group and we want to organise empowering activities for women with varying ability level. We act locally while observing different institutions. We check their accessibility and we verify if they take into account the perspective of women with disabilities. There are three main axes in our activity: reproductive rights, counteracting discrimination and violence because of sex, disability and independent life.

Katarzyna Żeglicka dancing on a stage of Scena Tańca Studnio

Except for being engaged in causes for people with disabilities, you are also LGTBQ+ activist. The sexuality of people with disabilities is still a taboo, especially in Poland. What should we change about it?

First of all, we need to educate. We need to show various patterns of relationships, not only the ones based on the heterosexual family. We need to show homosexual constellations, patchwork, and also the ones where there are people with varying levels of ability. We need to remember that disability concerns us all. It is not a private issue but a social one. I believe that it is very important to educate disabled girls about the right for sexuality, and a free right to express their needs i.e.: having a partner. Education is needed for the entire society. We need to pay attention to the fact that every person irrespectively of their ability has needs including sexual ones. We need to talk about those needs and respect them…

…it is difficult to talk about rainbow sexuality during the pre-election time. When we witness chauvinistic and homophobic attacks on non-normative people perpetrated by the ruling party.

We are living in very difficult times. Transexual people do not have a possibility to undergo civil transition. The first legal act, stalled by President Duda, concerned the issue of gender reconciliation. My partner to re-determine his sex had to sue his parents. There is no such case in the whole world. He underwent an examination during which he was asked inhumane questions. He was deprived of his respect and intimacy. Still in this age, in Poland, we have repair-therapies. In our legal system, psycho-mentality and disability are not seen as premises for punishment for the act of hatred. As a result of system-based discrimination, a lot of people struggle with depression, anxiety and they often commit suicide. ‘The fish rots from the head’ – the hetero-norm oppresses the minority. Non-hetero people with disabilities struggle with a lot of barriers. They often resign from ‘coming out’. They do not want to lose family support. Organisations supporting people with disabilities do not stand behind us, because for them there is no case. We are invisible for some part of the LGBTQ community, which is strange, as we share a lot of issues like marital equality. People with mental disability and LGBTQIA cannot marry. Our emancipation is possible as a result of pro-human communities. They will help us to eliminate barriers and fight together with the oppression.

We need to work on disabled people assistance so that they could become independent of their families. Thanks to that they could meet in places where they could be understood. Where they could meet people who feel and think in a similar way. A disabled person from a conservative family has no chance for independence.

Katarzyna Żeglicka while painting the banner, photo: Aleksandra Migalska

We did not observe much change from last year when disabled people protested in the Parliament. People with varying degree of disability were noticed as people who think independently, who have a right for the same rights and freedom just like all other fully-abled citizens of Poland. Social postulates, which the protesters fought for, were not fulfilled by the government. But, I am under the impression that something truly amazing happened. Disabled people became revolutionary subjects. Their situation created space for people to join in their cause. What do you think about those events from the perspective of time? How do you appraise them? Is there a chance for a further mobilisation?

For me, that protest was something amazing because it mobilised so many different people with disabilities and their supporters. We had a chance to discuss The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As Strefa Wenus z Milo, we could discuss those issues. However, it is important to divide the protest of disabled people from the protest of disabled people’s care-takers.

…indeed, the media often used a term: Protest of Disabled People’s Families.

Exactly. Personally, I agree with all postulates of the protesters in the Parliament, but we need to notice the needs of mothers, care-takers are different from the needs of disabled people. Often those postulates are conflicting. For example, a great number of disabled people would like to be independent of their care-takers. In this case, the assistance is more important. The crucial thing is to make the person independent of their family. It is often the family that subjects the disabled people to violence. The disabled people cannot find a safe place and they have no-where to turn for help because of architectural and commuting barriers, socialisation to be a woman with disabilities as well as dependence on caretakers. That is the reason why assistance is so important.

Coming back to the protest, it showed us how big organisations, which receive funds from the state to support disabled people, were afraid to participate in the protest due to fear of having their funds cut. For us, an independent organisation, it was easier to join in, because we do not get anything from the state. I may feel grudge towards the big organisations, but I understand them. I fear how the support for disabled people shall look in the future. Where to look for funding? How to become independent of the state, which does not really support us nowadays. I need to add here that running an organisation as a woman with disabilities is really difficult. We need to overcome a mass of barriers. During the process of registering our association, the court forbade online meetings. We had to turn to an organisation fighting with discrimination to clear this issue.

At a protest, author of the photo unknown

…indeed, legal acts are written by fully-abled people who consider their own perspective. Just like feminists had to fight for their rights, now women with disabilities fight for theirs.

Yes, we are trying to get to people, who understand and would like to support us, if not by sharing their time and engagement, perhaps by supporting us financially.

What is your everyday work in Strefa Wenus z Milo like? How often do you meet? How do you overcome the barriers?

In Strefa we have about 15 people. The decisive voice belongs to women with disabilities. The able-people, men, trans-people and non-binary people act as advisers. Now that we have the financing from Batory Foundation we may develop our organisation. We have a self-help group, we do empowerment and accessibility workshops, we do WenDo, we work on a strategy, we support women with disabilities, who tell us about violence and discrimination. We work in virtual space and if there is something to do, we form activity groups. We struggle with architectural, technical and commuting barriers. Sometimes, it is the weather or season that is a problem. In winter, people using crutches have difficulties getting out of the house. We try then to concentrate on what is possible to do remotely. We do not have an office. We work from home, coffee places, where we could. Space accessible for people with disabilities in Krakow is very difficult to find. There are not that many of them. We really want to create a permanent Bank Of Accessibility, in which there would be money for assistance, to cover the cost of a taxi, translation to and from Sign Language, for induction loop. This idea requires great amounts of money, for that reason we are searching for a sponsor. The financial means from the Batory Foundation will stop by the end of the year. Projecting will also stop at some point.

As far as, I am concerned, activism and work have exhausted me. There is always something to do, some barriers to overcome. In an organisation like ours, you work all the time over your story based on experiences of discrimination and violence. I worked in Strefa half-time for four years for free. Outside Strefa, I had a paid job. I would forget about myself, about my disability and psycho-physical condition. And that organisation was meant for people like me. Unfortunately, the system of work in Polish NGOs does not allow for decent conditions. It brought me, amongst other reasons, to depression. I resigned from being the chairwoman and member of the management. Now I am in Strefa working full-time. Outside this work, I would like to concentrate on dancing. Dancing resued me, but I do not treat it therapeutically. This is my way for activism, for expressing myself, for my sensitivity. All my life, I heard from doctors, that as a disabled person I need to be careful with how much I do. I could not do anything. Now, at the age of 44, I discover that it was not true.

It started from a performance called ‘Poruszenie’ [The Stir], which spoke about violence towards women with disabilities. 5 women with disabilities took part in it. We spent 70 hours in practice. It gave us enormous power. I understood that the violence, I experienced in hospitals, residues in my body. That heavy load of trauma can be shaken through work. This is how I can free myself. Before performing, I became WenDo trainer, I saw how much my non-normative body can do. It can do a somersault, it can break a plank of wood, I can shout. It gave me so much force that I understood that my form of activism may be art. Activism can be danced. 

photo: Agnieszka Król, Katarzyna Żeglicka on the stage

In your text published on Wenus z Milo webpage, you write: No everybody is aware that disability is not a personality trait. It is born in contact with architectural and commuting barriers. But most of all, it is born inside our heads.

These words are very important. As no-one is born a woman, but becomes one, in a similar way, no-one is born disabled. How to overcome the barriers, what to do so that we all may live in a more equal and juster society?

I had in mind a social model of disability, which is spoken about by The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is important not to talk about disability as some isolated problem. It should be spoken about in all spheres of science and life. We need to mark the perspective of disabled people. So when we talk about the emancipation of women, we should not forget people using the wheelchairs, deaf women, the elder women, the blind, and people with a various spectrum of autism. I would like kindergarten children to have anti-discrimination education. I want them to get an education in the world of diverse people.

On May 24, 2019, members of the Strefa Wenus z Milo organization decided to liquidate it. The interview was carried out earlier.


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