Keep the Disabled Out: Tyranny of the ‘Normal’

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On Sep. 5, residents in Seoul’s Gangseo district gathered at a local elementary school to discuss the future of a public real estate project. On the one side were the parents of children with disabilities, who wanted a school specially adapted to their children’s needs. On the other side were residents who didn’t want the “disabled school” in their district. 

“You can insult us. We’ll be okay. But we can never give up the school for our children,” said parent Lee Eun-ja. (Source: NocutV YouTube)

This three-hour discussion, presided by top education officials in Seoul, went nowhere. The residents were worried about declining real estate value, and wanted a national medical center for oriental medicine instead (a campaign promise made in 2015 by a conservative lawmaker). When the parents of the disabled children knelt in front of the opponents, begging for understanding (and humanity), some of the anti-school residents shouted, “Stop with the theatrics!” 

“Stop with the theatrics!” (Source: NocutV YouTube)

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, Gangseo district has one of the highest concentrations of students who need special education. This refers to anyone between the ages 0 to early 20s, whose disability corresponds to any of the ten categories of disability set by the Office — “intellectual,” “physical,” “developmental,” etc — and need special care.

There are currently over 12,800 such registered students in Seoul; but Seoul’s 29 “special schools” can accommodate less than half of them. 

“Don’t disabled children also have the right to education? If you tell the disabled to leave, what would my daughter and I do?” said Lee Eun-ja. “Figure that out yourself!” a resident shouted back. (Source: NocutV YouTube)

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education has planned to build a school for the disabled since 2013, in place of a local elementary school that closed that same year. But fierce objections from other residents have stalled the process. “Let’s build a national medical center for oriental medicine, and let us live prosperously like the others,” a banner read. “The disabled should all be boxed into one place,” daily newspaper Hankyoreh reported a resident shouting at a July meeting.

The Gangseo incident may seem like a miniscule scandal in one district. But it reflects the difficulty for the disabled and their families fighting for the right to special education throughout South Korea. It reflects how easy it is to be cruel, when those privileged enough to be born ‘normal’ disregard the suffering of people that seem different, simply to “live prosperously.” 

 

Cover image: The hidden faces of the residents at Gangseo district in Seoul, who oppose the construction of a special school for the disabled. (Source: NocutV YouTube)

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