We overcome barriers! Maciej Oksztulski from the University of Bialystok is the first nonspeaking autistic person in Poland, who defended his doctoral dissertation.

This event is my dream come true – admits Maciej Oksztulski, the postgraduate student at the Faculty of Law of the University of Bialystok. He is the first nonspeaking autistic person in Poland, who defended his doctoral dissertation. In order to award the academic degree of Doctor of Juridical Science only the resolution of the Faculty Council of the Faculty of Law of the University of Bialystok was needed. The session of the Council took  place on 21 January 2022.

I shall admit that at the beginning I was sceptic and I had doubts if we succeed in organizing the doctoral procedure for Maciej Oksztulski efficiently and effectively. But I decided that we should try. Disability cannot restrict anybody’s chance to develop. At the same time, at the Faculty of Law we did everything to check whether Maciej Oksztulski deserves the academic degree of Doctor of Juridical Science. The defence of the doctoral dissertation confirmed that it was worth it. This is a success not only of Maciej Oksztulski, but also of many other people associated with him, also from the Faculty of Law, where he is employed as a research worker. Special words of appreciation should be given to Professor Maciej Perkowski, who from the very beginning had confidence in Maciej Oksztulski – says Professor Mariusz Popławski, the dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Bialystok.

Professor Maciej Perkowski, the head of the Department of Public International Law and European Law of the University of Bialystok, was the dissertation supervisor of Maciej Oksztulski. The dissertation is entitled: ‘Legal and international standards of law for the right to education and their practical implementation by national scientific institutions in relation to students with the autism spectrum. A comparative analysis with a particular reference to Poland and the United States.’ Professor Jacek Barcik from the University of Silesia and Professor Robert Grzeszczak from the University of Warsaw were the dissertation reviewers.

The pubic defence of the doctoral dissertation took place on 21 December 2021. Because of the pandemic and in accordance with the Rector’s Ordinance it was conducted online. Several dozen of people were listening to it. Maciej Oksztulski, who is a nonspeaking person, was writing sentences on a keyboard and a speech synthesizer was reading the content. In this way he answered questions, which occurred during the doctoral defence. At the same time, he was calm and composed as well as his mother – Danuta Oksztulska, who is his assistant. The doctoral committee unanimously adopted a resolution on the acceptance of the defence of the doctoral dissertation.

- Yes, this event is my dream come true! Am I proud? Rather valued, as a person with the autism spectrum, whose aim is to provide legal support to people with the autism spectrum. Will the support system for the autistic people allow me to achieve my aims – we will see – comments Maciej Oksztulski.

He also assures that the doctoral defence was not associated with great stress.

As far as I know, my family, who took part in this event online as guests, experienced my defence much more emotionally. My mother and I were calm and focused on the tasks. I would like to underline that the entire phase of the preparations to the exams and a series of exams is an achievement on a global scale. Enormous determination and hope for a better tomorrow help me to overcome difficulties in life – describes the postgraduate student.

Patience and work were the elements that lead us to the final stage of his doctoral dissertation. We gradually learnt ourselves step by step and we made sure that it was right. It was largely due to many people who supported our undertaking in various aspects. I was calmer about Maciek than about the remaining participants of the event. For some people it was a new experience and they could perceive its ‘originality’ in various ways. I was also worried about emotions of Ms Danuta Oksztulska – Maciek’s mother. Fortunately, everything went smoothly. Maciek can and should be proud, and of course I am proud of him! – says Professor Maciej Perkowski.

Yes, I believed that everything will be good and now I am very happy. For me, it is a miracle of God – says Ms Danuta Oksztulska, who as the assistant accompanied her son during the whole process of the studies. 

On the other hand, Professor Mariusz Popławski emphasises that it was undoubtedly an important event for the academic community of the Faculty of Law and simultaneously the success of the entire University.

We succeeded in creating procedures, which allowed us to adjust formal requirements in terms of conducting doctoral examinations and the defence of the doctoral dissertation at the Faculty of Law to the particular communicational possibilities of Maciej Oksztulski. The solution, which I adopted in this case was based on the assumption that according to which the most important is the fact that during the individual phase of doctoral procedure the knowledge, abilities and competences of the postgraduate student should be thoroughly verified. Also it is important to  establish whether they are adequate to award him the academic degree of Doctor of Juridical Science. With great enjoyment and happiness I can affirm than we fully succeeded.  With no doubts, I can say that Maciej Oksztulski met the above mentioned conditions. I personally chaired three committees that supervised Mr Oksztulski’s doctoral examinations. Then, I also chaired the doctoral committee, before which he defended his doctoral dissertation. During these examinations he demonstrated significant knowledge in the scope of international law, sociology, and the English language at the required level. He also showed the skill of synthetically constructing answers and answering the so-called ’on target’ to the asked questions. I am convinced that it will be a formal session of the Faculty Council of the Faculty of Law of the University of Bialystok that in January 2022 will award the academic degree of Doctor of Juridical Science to Maciej Oksztulski, which in my opinion, he fully deserves – adds the dean of the Faculty of Law.

Maciej Oksztulski is 30 years old. When he as 4 years old, he was diagnosed with autism. Although he did not speak, his closest family noticed Maciej’s enormous intellectual potential and decided to develop it. Despite many problem, together they overcame them thanks to the help of good and wise people.

- I am aware of the fact that I am the first nonspeaking person with the autism spectrum in Poland (and in the world, I think) for whom alternative forms of matura examinations were prepared. In 2010 I obtained the school leaving certificate – reminds Maciej Oksztulski.

He started studies at the University of Bialystok 11 years ago. The field of studies and university were not a random choice. “I dreamt about Law studies at the Faculty of Law of the University of Bialystok – I would never replace it for any other. Even though my contacts with other students were very limited because of the lack of active speech” – in this way Maciej Oksztulski justifies his choice of the field of studies during the interview that appeared on the university’s website as a part of ‘Faces of the University of Bialystok’.

Human rights, in particular the rights of people with disabilities are his scientific passion. He can speak 6 foreign languages and the photographic memory simplifies him learning. In free time, he listens to music, reads books, rides a bike, ice-skates and swims. He also likes excursions and adores the forest (peace and quiet).

During my studies there were many problems but thanks to wise people, I managed to overcome them. Today I may state if not for Professor Maciej Perkowski, I would have not succeeded my aim (during 30 years I also met similar people). The great Professor’s determination and persistence as well as the support of my family had a huge impact on this undertaking. The last period, that is examinations and the defence, was a great support of Professor Mariusz Popławski, the dean of the Faculty of Law, who thanks to determination, decisiveness and inner tranquillity led the final part of the whole process. Dr hab. Izabela Kraśnicka always helped, supported with her knowledge and assisted in the trip. I cannot forget about the Wojciech Zoń, who supported me not only in the administrative procedures, but also in many others. I would like to thank all employees and postgraduate students from the Division of Public International Law. If I missed someone, I apologize – adds Maciej Oksztulski.

Maciej’s potential was seen at the very beginning, but at that time I did not know how to use it effectively or in which direction. I felt kindness to Maciek and Ms Danuta and I was wondering how I could help them – recalls Professor Maciej Perkowski. However, because of the intensity of the meetings and gradual knowing each other, I realized the individual approach is the crucial aspect here. During frequent meetings (necessarily without the pressure of time !) and intensive talks Maciek showed deep insights, views and content which made it possible to appreciate his knowledge and the ability to synthesize. Lawyers usually “colour”, and it is difficult for them to do without “introduction”. But Maciek is extremely definitive (this is one of the symptoms of his character). So, we were cultivating even this ability. I encouraged him to express feelings, reflections and comparisons. At the beginning it was difficult, but it changed step by step. Obviously, not fully, but still. It is not about the situation in which Maciek wears a mask of a model lawyer, but while being himself, he could function in this occupational group, developing his own niche within this group (presenting the approach from the unknown perspective to other lawyers). I have an impression that Maciek made a synthesis here and is perfect in the scope of e.g. self-advocacy. I think that the defence of his doctoral dissertation was a positive stimulus which will trigger energy and abilities, to which we could not fully reveal. I believe in the continuation of this journey into the unknown!

What are Maciej Oksztulski's plans for the future?

- I want to work on helping people with disabilities and in particular in the autism spectrum as I have done so far. Will it succeed, it is difficult to say. Will I be able to  support myself working in this way? Presently, I partially realize my scientific aims as a researcher at the Faculty of Law and a data analyst in the project EUROPE DIRECT Podlaskie. I would like to underline that now I am a volunteer in Oswoić Świat Foundation which deals with adults with the autism spectrum, but I am also a member of the Youth Council at the Podlasie Council of People with Disabilities and a consultant in Synapsis Foundation – says the postgraduate student.

Mr Maciej Oksztulski thanks to his determination opened the way to other people who regardless of their limitations can fight for their dreams. For the Faculty of Law, the possibility to organize individual stages of the doctoral procedure of Maciej Oksztulski means that we are open to every student and we can adjust to new and changing conditions and we have ambitions to create better reality for everybody – summarizes Professor Mariusz Popławski, the dean of the Faculty of Law.

Photo by A. Jabłońska-Perkowska