Disability Rights Advocates in South Korea have been demonstrating for improved accessibility and protection from discrimination by blocking access to key subway stations in Seoul. April 15th marked the 91st day of these protests and demonstrations (beginning on World Disability Day). Public transit access has been difficult for people living with disabilities to say the least. A paraplegic couple intending on visiting their son on the Lunar New Year used a wheelchair lift at a subway station and fell 23 feet, with the wife dying and the husband severely injured. A blind English teacher, who got off at a station he did not know the layout of, fell onto train tracks because no safety doors had been installed.
While a law passed in December to increase wheelchair access on rural and city buses, it excluded intercity buses and it allowed local governments to opt out of other measures like procuring taxis, on budgetary grounds. The laws the advocacy group SADD (Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination) would have pushed for President-Elect Yun Seok-yul to defend and expand anti-discrimination as while the South Korean Constitution requires that all citizens are equal before the law, discrimination remains effectively legal to minority groups.
SADD had used the extremely close Presidential race to pressure both candidates into supporting their goals, but with what many are calling “Korea’s Trump” coming into power getting these into law seem less likely. Yun rode a wave of male resentment to power in the country with his People’s Power Party, where his main supporters were concerned that recent enfranchisement of minorities would lead to “Reverse Discrimination”. The messaging should be very familiar. Lee Jun-seok, head of the PPP and the President’s confidante wrote the following on Facebook
“The underdog framing that minorities are always in the right no longer convinces the people. They are relying on a long-obsolete politics of gaslighting, stereotyping the majority as the evil and the minority as the untouchably holy.”
Expectations were not high for Yun’s administration, he called for abolishing the Ministry of Women and Family, stating that women do not suffer systemic discrimination. It would seem that advocates at SADD are at the center of a much larger fight for recognition and protection. But many of the activists at the head of SADD have been active, and effective, for decades. Park Kyeong-sok, co-director of the organization, led a similar demonstration in the 90s that led to the then-Mayor of Seoul and one day President Lee Myung-Bak to install elevators at all stations within the city by 2004. More than 90% have elevators as of today, compared to 30% in New York City.
With any luck, they will be able to fight for their right to live and work with respect and dignity.