Oasis or ghetto: A settlement without architectural barriers

Five years have passed already since four Poles with disabilities announced their dream of building “Oaza” (oasis), a settlement for people in wheelchairs, without any architectural obstacles, a place where they could lead an unrestricted life. It would be the first such community in Europe.

But it has some opponents, who say “Oaza” would contradict the philosophy of integration. Advocates of building “Oaza,” on the other hand, say some Poles are afraid of innovation.

So they have asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to donate 100 houses for the project. Although the German government found the proposal interesting, it said it could not provide direct help. “We know many organizations instead that would be interested in supporting this project, and we can help contact them,” John Reyels, press attache at the German Embassy in Warsaw, told the newspaper Dziennik Zachodni.

Bronislaw Grabiec is 72 years old and has been disabled for many years. Living in an old apartment house in the center of the city of Katowice, he knows well the daily obstacles faced by the handicapped. As his wheelchair weighs 100 kilograms, he must ask people for assistance in getting around, sometimes even having to pay for the help. Making his apartment suitable for a wheelchair would cost 150,000 zloty. Grabiec thought it would be better to build a new house for that money. That was the beginning of the “Oaza” idea.

The project would have no architectural barriers to wheelchairs such as stairs or curbs. The settlement of about 100 houses would include shops, swimming pool, chapel, post office, a bank and even a school. Towns like “Oaza” exist successfully in United States. About 1,700 people from the whole of Poland. The only condition for residency is motor disability.

Grabiec is a member of “Akcent,” the Silesian Association of Education and Rehabilitation of Disabled People. Together with Marek Plura, Jozef Cuber and Marcin Mikulski, who also use wheelchairs, Grabiec began to chase his dream. The four found architects who designed a settlement for free, and potential house builders. An embassy agreed to build one house; in return the embassy’s flag would be displayed. Grabiec also selected a location for “Oaza.”

He received proposals from many counties, but he wanted the settlement to be in Katowice. The city says it has suitable sites, but authorities are opposed to the idea of “Oaza.” First of all, they find it expensive and impractical, almost utopian. And second, they say it runs contrary to integration principles.

“Disabled people shouldn’t be alienated; they should live with others,” says Waldemar Bojarun, the spokesman of the mayor of Katowice. Authorities fear that the community would resemble a ghetto, as it would be fenced, with an entrance gate to be opened with special magnetic card. With shops, restaurants, a clinic and employment opportunities, residents would have no reason to travel elsewhere in the city. That is what Katowice authorities oppose.

“We have a different policy, we stand for integration,” Bojarun told the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. “The city supports initiatives that help disabled people find their own flats, we adapt buildings and build apartments adapted for people in wheelchairs.”

So it seems that neither Katowice nor other Silesian communities are enthusiastic about Grabiec’s’ idea. But Grabiec is not going to give up his project. He is seeking EU grants. He also is awaiting the German government’s response. He hopes that if Poland cannot make his dream come true, perhaps Germany will.

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