Hardships of Disability in Korea

Hardships of Disability in Korea

Wheelchair riders have converged on subway stations in central Seoul for several months. They want the government to take disability rights seriously.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

I am not fond of Seoul south of the Han River, called Gangnam. All those tall buildings, streets chocking with cars, and nothing much to suggest history. I find it convenient but dull and ugly.

So I was once telling Hong Yun-hui, an acquaintance from work, when she interjected.

"But Gangnam is much better than Gangbuk for people with disability."

It was one of those 'aha' moments that betrayed my ignorance. Gangnam—developed only starting in the 1970s—does tend to have much better and wider sidewalks than the older part of the city north of the river. Buildings there are often newer and equipped with elevators.

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Hong knows what she is talking about: with a daughter in need of a wheelchair, she became a passionate disability rights activist, documenting their challenges on social media and writing for the media on the subject when she isn't working full-time as a senior manager at eBay Korea. She also started a non-profit organization called Muui, which creates maps of Seoul Metro's transfer routes for wheelchair users.

Mobility for disabled Koreans is far from guaranteed. Some twenty years after promises were first made, the public transit system still isn't fully wheelchair-accessible.

Since last fall many disabled Koreans have taken several times to the streets, or more accurately, to subway stations in Seoul. If you experienced delays during rush hour on the metro—especially lines three, four and five—your travel may have coincided with the protest: they use various tactics to stop the train from leaving, causing considerable disruption in the network.

Scenes from the subway protest by disability rights activists on Feb. 4

Inconvenient as it may be for others, it's for raising awareness of how Korea is failing them. The government's lack of funding and refusal to prioritize disability issues are big concerns.

More than 2.6 million people in South Korea are registered as having disabilities. That's no small number, amounting to five percent of the population. But they aren't always treated equally.

Nearly two-thirds speak of experiencing discrimination, although the figure has fallen from the high of 80 percent who said the same in 2017. A law exists to ban unfair treatment of the disabled, but those affected aren't sure if it helps in real life; in 2020 disability was the single biggest reason (28 percent) for filing a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission.

Insults against disabled people are reported with regularity, and even politicians are known to use language that disparages disability. The shocking scandal around the use of the mentally disabled as slave labor on salt farms in southwest Korea, revealed multiple times and most lately last year, also highlights the vulnerability of disabled Koreans to abuse.

Even this sad state is something of an improvement, achieved through the struggle over decades by the disabled community. According to history provided by Be Minor, a domestic media outlet focusing on disability rights, the old Korean word for the disabled—bulguja 불구자 meaning an "incomplete person"—attests to how having a disability was long perceived.

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A big turning point came only in 1988 when the Paralympics in Seoul shed much needed light on disability rights and put pressure on the state to act.

Two major forms of progress in the 1990s were a mandatory two-percent quota for disabled employees at businesses with 300 or more workers, and the right of disabled students to receive up to middle school education (changed in 2012 to cover high school, too).  

As the law currently stands, the quota is applied to businesses with 50 or more employees, but instead of hiring a disabled person, the company can simply pay a small fine, and even then only if they have 100 or more employees.

The right to education is also precarious. In 2021 over 98,000 students qualified for "special education"teuksu gyoyuk 특수교육—as the curricula for disabled students are called. Less than 28 percent of them were attending special schools for the disabled, while the rest were at conventional institutions, albeit mostly in special education classes.

In an ideal scenario all students regardless of disability would learn together in harmony, but stories of bullying and condescension by non-disabled classmates are rampant. Some non-disabled Koreans also don't hesitate to say they see disabled students around them as a nuisance, and existing buildings themselves aren't always designed to accommodate students with disability.

That's why many parents say they prefer to send their disabled children to special schools in short supply, making long trips early each morning to class on time because space isn't available in their own districts.

The 2017 tale of mothers in Gangseo District of Seoul is famous: after the Seoul Education Commission approved the conversion of an unused elementary school into a special school, many local residents erupted in anger, claiming the value of their homes would fall. At a public hearing on the matter, the students' mothers cried and kneeled on the ground to appeal for understanding from the opponents who yelled, "They are 100 percent putting on a show [for sympathy]".

An agreement was reached only after after education commissioner Cho Hee-yeon promised to provide land in the future for a new Korean traditional hospital—something the residents wanted in lieu of the special school.

Last year's documentary A Long Way to School charted the fight of disabled students' mothers to secure a new special school in the area.

Not all want to go to special schools, though. The only disability Hong's daughter Yoo Jimin has is an inability to walk from a congenital condition. She is smart, writing columns for a newspaper and serving as a committee member at the National Center for the Rights of the Child under Korea's health ministry.

Jimin wanted to attend the well-regarded private Hanyoung High School in her area, but its answers were not positive. "There is no elevator." When told that the Seoul Education Commission will foot the cost, they refused to consider it. The school went so far as to put up a banner over the gate stating "We demand negotiation process and preparation time before having to set up special classes"—that sounds so reasonable in English translation, but it was a sign of extreme displeasure at having to accommodate disabled students.

Only after media picked up on the story, it reached the decision to open special classes.

Hong says the message she and her daughter received from the school was 'you don't belong here'.

It's the same message wheelchair users have received from officials and public transit managers in the past. Subway stations were (and still are sometimes) equipped with wheelchair lifts that move alongside staircases, but these dangerous open platforms led to multiple deaths. The tragic case in 2001, which saw a disabled elderly couple fall to the ground and one of them die, galvanized the community to put on spectacular demonstrations, lying on tracks to stop inbound trains and chaining themselves to buses in operation.

Video by Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination, a rights organization, documents the protests from the early 2000s.

That kind of drastic but necessary activism compelled previous Seoul mayors Lee Myung-bak and Park Won-soon to promise elevators at every subway station (to be completed until 2004, said Lee, and until 2022, said Park), but 16 stations are still missing them. Last year incumbent mayor Oh Se-hoon's office even attempted to cut the necessary budget only to backpedal after the disabled community made their opposition be known through the subway-disruption strategy.

And forget about buses: only 58 percent in Seoul are wheelchair-accessible, although far better than the nationwide figure at a pathetic 28 percent. And people who have lived in the city know that catching a bus on a busy street can be challenging even for a non-disabled person.

When multiple buses arrive simultaneously, the ones in the back don't always come to the front to pick up passengers, forcing you to run several meters. Many drivers, rushing to complete the route, typically don't stop for longer than just enough time for people standing in line to hop on.

A taxi service for the disabled exists, but the demand is high, making a wait of one to two hours a usual occurrence during peak times.

A few good things have happened under the outgoing president Moon Jae-in. In 2019 the government abolished the much-hated disability ratings system that classified the disabled under a category of one to six as basis for determining who receives how much benefits (one being the severest). The idea was to open up public services and funding to all disabled people based on individually assessed needs. There are reported downsides—such as reduced hours of state-subsidized personal assistance for some—but the community had long asked for the change.

In addition, the prime minister announced in August an ambitious plan to help disabled residents in assisted-living facilities become more independent. Multiple accusations of wrongdoing have engulfed many such institutions in modern Korean history, the most famous being Gwangju Inhwa School (which inspired the novel Dogani 도가니 and a 2011 movie of the same Korean title—called Silenced in English).

Trailer for 2011 movie Silenced, based on horrific abuse of hearing-impaired student-residents at Gwangju Inhwa School

That plan has attracted criticism from some parents of disabled children requiring round-the-clock care, who fear that they will be forced to take on full-time caregiver roles when residential facilities close. And now with only three months left on president Moon's term, some wonder if his government is really committed to the policy given that the incoming administration could easily overturn it.

This wariness explains why even the passing of a law on Dec. 31 to increase disabled people's access to public transit wasn't entirely welcomed by the community. It mandated the purchase of a wheelchair-accessible bus to replace an old one being taken out of service, but only when it's an inner-city bus. The law also paved the way for the finance ministry to allocate funds for "special transit means" including taxis for the disabled, but that provision isn't mandatory, permitting the government to withhold money if it wanted to.

The disability rights activists converging on Seoul Metro say they will not stop until the finance ministry officially pledges the funding. They also want major presidential candidates for the election next month to promise a comprehensive budget for disability rights, not just mobility, at a televised debate.

Access to education and mobility are not separate problems. After learning that the private school in her area is no option, Hong Yun-hui, her husband and Jimin moved to Jongno in central Seoul so that Jimin can attend an alternative school. The ordeal, however, didn't end there: they belatedly found out that the cafeteria is in the basement, and there is no elevator down, no wheelchair ramp. And a public school she can attend is thirty minutes away by car.

"If Jimin wants to go there, she needs to take a bus, or use the subway and transfer twice. Neither are convenient. Wheelchair-accessible buses come only once in a while, and with the subway, she needs to transfer at Sungsin Women's University Station where the gap between the platform and the train is incredibly wide—it's dangerous for wheelchairs," Hong shared.

So they might move again in a year. When the country doesn't ensure sufficient mobility for the disabled, the only choice is for the whole family to be mobile, if they can afford it.

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