Tegan Tuesday: Disabled activists are using South Korea’s lack of accessibility to fight for human rights

My first introduction to disability rights was at a mock trial when I was a teenager. For those unfamiliar with the structure of mock trials, schools all across the US are given the same fake trial, and students must prepare both prosecution and defense against other school districts. It’s an introduction to the law process in the US and an interesting bit of mental competition. I remember one of the years that I was competing, the plaintiff was a disabled newscaster suing a news network for discriminatory hiring practices, stating that the network was not interesting in working with a newscaster in a wheelchair.

Among the many things our team had to learn to work on this case was what counts as discrimination, and what categories of people counted as a “protected class”. In the U.S., race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and age are the current protected classes. Partial protection from disability discrimination was from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, with additional protection from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Our fictional law case had the news station only paying attention to the original Civil Rights Act of 1964, which only protects discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. As an able-bodied person with no disabled people in my immediate family, I hadn’t ever considered the discrimination disabled people face. My mock trial team knew about how much effort went into getting the Civil Rights Act, and we assumed that a similar amount of effort was put in for all subsequent additions. And that’s where we left it; no actual research was done on the disability activists who made the relevant law happen.

The next time I heard much about disability activism was 2017 when activists were arrested outside Mitch McConnell’s office. The activist group ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today) had staged “die-ins” with wheelchair users abandoning their wheelchairs, making it harder to force the protesters to leave, as well as making the visual impact of removing said protesters stronger. In the many discussions and articles I read about the activists in 2017, I learned of how throughout much of the last fifty years disabled activists have been fighting. Not just for their lives, although they certainly have fought for that, but for the right to exist in public, to have jobs, to have families. One of the actions that ADAPT is known for are the protests throughout the 1980s for accessible buses. A quick summary from Wikipedia states:

Throughout the 1980s, the campaign for bus lifts expanded out from Denver to cities nationwide. ADAPTers became well known for their tactic of immobilizing buses to draw attention to the need for lifts. Wheelchair users would stop a bus in front and back, and others would get out of their chairs and crawl up the steps of an inaccessible bus to dramatize the issue. Not only city buses but interstate bus services like Greyhound were targeted. By the end of the decade, after protests and lawsuits, ADAPT finally saw bus lifts required by law as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

As anyone who has ever seen or experienced the process of getting a wheelchair user onto a bus will know, the current system is still not particularly good. It varies from place to place, but it generally requires the bus to laboriously lower a ramp, let the rider wheel on, then equally-laboriously raise the ramp. The process is repeated when the rider needs to exit. It takes time, which delays the schedule, and there is often only space for one or two wheelchair users on a bus. But, technically, officially, wheelchair users are able to ride the bus with the non-wheelchair-using populace. There’s just the implied and hoped-for expectation that most wheelchair users will avoid the bus. In a world where punctuality is often so important, and time is often so short, the setup almost seems designed to focus attention – and impatience – on disabled people just trying to go about their day.

This situation isn’t limited to just the US. In both Scotland and Ireland, my experience has been that anyone requiring a mobility aid has had to make an ordeal of their entering a bus. Cue my lack of surprise to find that South Korea has a similar issue with public transit. Since mid-December, Hyehwa station in Seoul has been the center of a new fight for disability rights.

Disability rights activists, many of them in wheelchairs, have been staging subway protests to demand accommodations on public transit. And on [April 15th] the demonstrators chained themselves to each other and to a portable ladder, reenacting a 2001 protest where activists chained themselves to the subway tracks. Now they shouted, “Pass a budget for disabled citizens! No rights without a budget!” They boarded trains in groups, which requires transit workers to install and uninstall wheelchair ramps, thus causing delays. A few of the activists had recently shaved their heads in public, a monkish ritual of sacrifice.

Lee Hyoung-sook, who leads a local advocacy group, was among those with her head shaved. At Gyeongbokgung station, she tried to board the train en route to Hyehwa station. Subway workers brought out a ramp so her wheels wouldn’t get stuck in the large gap between the platform and the car. Four more wheelchair users waited their turn to board in other sections of the train. While workers moved their one ramp around to get every wheelchair activist on board, the subway doors kept closing in on them. “Fellow citizens, we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience,” Lee told her fellow passengers.

These subway protests are being led by the largest disability-rights activist group, Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD). This is far from the first time that SADD has been in the news. In 2016, the group was protesting the 6-tiered disability system that ranks the amount of support any individual can receive. The activists were visibly pulled from chairs and dragged out of an international social work conference. Current South Korean president, Yoon Seuk-yeol, is the head of the conservative People’s Power Party, and the official response from the government has been as helpful as 2016’s sanctioned violence. The head of the political party – and the president’s right-hand-man – Lee Jun-seok, has claimed that the activism is illegal, an “uncivilized backward strategy” and that the activists are “playing the minority card” to villainize the majority. My, that’s certainly a familiar conservative refrain.

According to 2020 surveys, 32% of disabled Koreans don’t have access to medical care, 85.6% of disabled Koreans have been unable to pursue higher education, and the majority of the people surveyed stated that lack of accessible transportation was the primary reason. The transit activism runs parallel to efforts to improve conditions in residential facilities, as current statistics indicate that fully half of disabled Koreans living in care homes die before age 50, and a third of them don’t even make it to 30. But care home residents are not as visible as subway stoppages, so awareness has to come from without. SADD’s demands are simple: they want the rights of disabled citizens guaranteed, same as any other citizen.

SADD currently has been demanding the government to draw up four major bills relating to the basic rights of disabled. The disabled advocacy group has been also asking the government to secure budgetary funds for disability rights in the 2023 fiscal plan, in addition to an official meeting with the new administration’s finance minister.

Laws protecting the rights, freedoms, and safety of people have always been written in blood; I hope the South Korean government sees the value in the lives of disabled people before more blood is shed.

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