The majority of disabled Koreans live in isolation. Some of them get a bit of support; others have to cope with daily routine themselves. It depends on the level of their disability. They tend to remain passive, to hide and stay at home due to self-esteem problems. The root of these issues concerns social discrimination and a lack of accessibility in public spaces and in the transportation system. Many disabled people manage a lot of hardships every day as bravely as they fight for their rights. A five-year sit-in shows that it has a positive result including the increase in people’s awareness and publicizing their problems. 

 

 Mobility conditions

Seeing a person on an electric wheelchair in Seoul is not an uncommon occurrence. According to the statistics, roughly five percent of the population is registered as having a disability. The government provides them with a number of opportunities. These people have an access to a range of discounts, can use basic infrastructure which supports their daily lives and mobility. Many underground stations are well equipped with lifts and extra space for wheelchair users inside the trains. Large green signs on the floor indicate accessible cars. Minimal gaps between platform and train let disabled people avoid any difficulties. Another type of transport – city buses – is also wheelchair accessible. It has lowered floors, special ramps and securement areas with straps/tie downs. Actually, the most convenient vehicle is a taxi. Accessible taxis are yellow vans, equipped with a ramp or lift.

So, all these opportunities attract the attention of tourists with a disability. Major tourist sites and cultural facilities offer discounts or free admission for disabled visitors. Special preparations for the PyeongChang Olympic Games and Paralympics are also worth mentioning. All the facilities will be easy to access for people with wheelchairs, and a team of volunteers will be always ready to help. Therefore, disabled people in South Korea can participate in many cultural and other activities. Nevertheless, they still face lots of challenges during their everyday routine.

Korea’s invisible people

In South Korea, disability, in fact, is perceived as inferiority, abnormality, and defect. While the country is becoming friendlier in terms of the infrastructure, the problem of microaggression towards wheelchair users is still present. Through an interview with a human rights activist for disabled people, which was collected by Sungkyunkwan University Institutional Review Board, some acts of microaggression were exposed to the general public. These cases mostly involve complicated working situations, when wheelchairs users become limited in team building activities, such as going out for dinner with colleagues (sometimes disabled people prefer to exclude themselves from these gatherings not to ask for any assistance). Even though South Korea’s anti-discrimination law (Remedy against Infringement of Their Rights, etc.) strongly prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, unlike in other countries, it can be very tricky to apply formal standards to particular situations. That’s why many people with disability have to stay at home. Some of them live in segregated accommodation and dream of an independent life with their own house, their job, their own leisure time. Disabled-student Hyeon-bok tells that it is psychologically difficult to attend special schools, find suitable universities, cope with lack of jobs, especially when social activities are so limited. These factors lead to the opposition and discrimination increase. For example, in Seoul’s Gangseo district parents of disabled children met with a negative reaction to their request about the building of a new school. Many residents were afraid of tarnishing the district’s reputation.

According to the official statistics agencies, in 2015 many Koreans thought their society discriminated against disabled people. About a half of the respondents claimed that they sometimes faced such situations.

The root of the protest

A disability rights group consisted of Korean social activists and people with impairments has finished a five-year sit-in in one of the busiest underground stations in Seoul. It has happened after the health and welfare minister had promised to meet their demands, including abolishing the classification system. One of the reasons that caused the Gwanghwamun underground station protest was the country’s controversial disability policies, including “standardizing” and “grading” people by their level of disability. In South Korea, benefits depend on this grade, as well as on other circumstances, including a family’s income and a disabled person’s age.

 

The second trigger for the sit-in was the former president’s lack of enthusiasm for governmental support for people with physical impairments. South Korea is well-known to be highly advanced technological country. At the same time, some social issues are out of attention. Ministry of Health and Welfare of South Korea is currently planning to develop and later implement new programs for different social communities, as they need extra-governmental protection and support. One of the main priority concerning people with disabilities is to establish advocacy groups for representing and supporting their rights and interests. Another controversial aspect is the idea of classification itself. Obviously, living standards vary from central regions to smaller towns, very often people living in rural areas need more help from aside than those who live in industrial parts of the country. And that is exactly what is omitted from Korean classification system. It is difficult to deny that individual approach, in this case, will be costly and much more difficult to control for the government. Nevertheless, the current system proved itself to be far from perfection.

Triumphant but fleeting

The sit-in was organized in order to bring public attention to the issue and to call for actions. Back in 2012, when the sit-in was first started many activists couldn’t have imagined how much time it was going to last. The amount of effort is more than impressive. The group of protesters managed to grant constant presence at the spot near the exit. Furthermore, they also kept the whole manifestation within the law by paying fine for illegal occupation of the space. Although the government has already taken some steps to the creation of the society with equal rights, the situation seems not to be radically and positively changed. The protest is over but the problem is not.

Subscribe to WM Daily. Be In Touch With Rebellious Voices