Warsaw, Poland – Warsaw-born Bartek Jakubowski never thought of himself as “sick”, which is why he becomes disgruntled whenever he reads articles referring to people with autism as “seriously ill”.
“I am outraged when media outlets describe Asperger’s as a disease,” the 28-year-old man says.
It is not a sickness, he explains. Rather, it is a disorder, which manifests itself differently in every person.
Bartek was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. At the age of 16, he found out that he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, part of a broader category of the autism spectrum disorder.
He is one of an estimated 30,000 Poles on the autism spectrum. This figure, according to the non-profit organisation, Synapsis, could be much higher, but no research in this area has been conducted domestically, and the estimate is based on studies from neighbouring countries.
Until last year, Bartek worked at a supported employment enterprise where, by his own admission, he never felt at home.
His life changed dramatically in January 2016, when he began working at “Zycie jest fajne” (Life is Cool), a Warsaw-based cafe employing people on the autism spectrum.
“I feel like I don’t work at a place that hires mentally ill people anymore. This is a normal job,” he says, visibly content as he pulls out and arranges tables outside the cafe before it opens.
Because there is no “special treatment” at Life is Cool, Bartek is assigned a variety of tasks, ranging from getting the cafe ready for business, cleaning, serving customers and taking orders.
But his employment entails more than regular chores. As part of his job, he is also required to attend therapy and weekly check-ins with his coworkers, whom he prefers to call “friends”.
|Bartek Jakubowski works at ‘Life is Cool’ cafe in Warsaw. [Al Jazeera/Marta Kasztelan]|
Here, he not only seems to have found a sense of belonging, but he was offered peer support that set him out on a very new trajectory.
Encouraged by his coworkers, who believe he would make a great journalist, and driven by his dislike for the portrayal of autism by the Polish media, Bartek shot a documentary film about his colleagues from Life is Cool.
In October 2016, his short, titled “‘A’ like a human being”, won the Grand Prix at the National Film Review for Persons on the Spectrum of Autism.
This young, bubbly man wants to challenge stereotypes about people from the spectrum of autism and show others “the way they really are”.
“There is a stereotype of people with Asperger’s, like me, that you can’t really talk to them and that they don’t really understand what you are saying to them,” he explains.
“I can refute that.”
While he admits that leading a more or less normal life might come harder to him and his colleagues, Bartek is confident he will make the most of the opportunities he’s been given.
“I believe I will make it,” he says, and adds: “I am almost certain of it. And I prefer to have hope.”