Korea: Disabled Hope for Infrastructure for Support

The second article in a two-part series examining the problems of disabled people in Korea and possible solutions. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs7/ji-young2005019.html


Source: The Korea Herald, 2005-05-19

Although the government estimates there are 1.6 million disabled people inKorea and civil activist groups say there are 4.5 million, "Where arethey?" is a question which many ask.

It reflects the isolation in which the disabled live. Despite the apparentinvisibility of the disabled population, however, what is currently going onbehind the scenes is a volatile and compelling movement for a new law to protectdisabled rights.

"Go anywhere in the world and see if you can find a nation with a moredynamic activist movement. Korea has gained the greatest momentum for changein the rights of the disabled right now," said Shin Yong-ho, directorof the Research Institute of the Differently Abled Persons Rights in Korea.Civil activists fighting for the rights of the disabled are themselves disabled,making them more passionate about the urgency of the issue at hand.

The formation of a coalition of 68 organizations, the Joint Association Strugglingfor the Human Rights of the Disabled, and government efforts to meet theirdemands have created an opportunity to address the injustice and discriminationthat affect the disabled.

On the most practical level, what Korea needs is the basic infrastructureto support the daily lives and mobility of the disabled population - an elevatorin every subway station, buses with lower platforms which people in wheelchairscan easily access, buildings and bathrooms with wheelchair ramps.

Most disabled people live in isolated group facilities, or rehabilitationcenters and are often preyed upon.

On March 15, the discovery of an illegal housing facility called the 'PaulMissionary' brought charges of fraud and usurpation of money against the managerand the Anyang City Social Welfare director.

The owner operated the facility illegally, admitting disabled people withan entrance fee and taking their welfare money and donations, using only asmall portion to support the residents. Inside the facility, authorities said,incidents of physical and sexual abuse were common and the living conditionswere dire. The district's social welfare director was charged with neglectinghis duties of managing and directing social welfare facilities.

The residents at Paul Missionary took their chaotic environment for granted.

"After I had a stroke, my friends just abandoned me here. I just liehere all day, and drunkards come here to beat me up. These drunkards also takethe girls out all the time. It's obvious what they do to them." said Kim,59, who suffers from paralysis.

"The manager knows about this, but she doesn't do a thing. I am a recipientof government welfare, but I don't know what's being done with that money,I've never seen it. This is a lawless place; we have to follow the laws ofthe facility," said Ms. Hyun, 42 who has cerebral palsy, "The manageris like the president of a nation here. I am afraid of the night. Somethingalways happens in the night. Men come into the women's room whenever they getthe chance. Many girls have become victims of rape. But my parents tell methat I should live and die here."

Because there is no basic infrastructure for them in society, the disabledfind it impossible to live on their own. Currently, there are about 240 facilitieslegally registered to house disabled, and 1,000 facilities illegally operated,according to available figures. The illegal facilities lack the basic infrastructureand money to be registered by government standards.

Alternative solutions

A movement for Independent Living presents an alternative solution to thesefacilities. The IL movement began in the United States in the 1960s and thinksof disability as something that can be corrected and complemented, such aspoor eyesight may be improved by eyeglasses.

The basic idea is that the disabled can live independently outside of facilitiesbecause it is possible to change the environment to meet the needs of the disabledpopulation. Rather than leaving this role to the government, IL centers areoperated by the disabled, offering peer counseling, information and referral,advocacy, independent living skills training, and creating a community networkin which the disabled can rely on each other to live independently. The ILcenters also hire personal care attendants to help those who need assistance.For IL to be fully implemented, society needs to provide the basic infrastructureand IL centers must be available to the whole disabled population.

There are currently 400 IL centers in the United States and 133 in Japan.The IL movement in Korea began in 2001, and there are now 10 IL centers receivinggovernment support, and 20 are self-supported.

Both the United States and Japan are moving away from facilities for the disabledtoward IL centers. "The expansion of IL centers goes along with the naturalintegration of disabled persons into local society. This means the disabledwill not be thrown into facilities hidden from society, but will be livingas your next door neighbor," said Park Chan-oh, director of the SeoulCenter for Independent Living.

"In order to establish more IL centers, the government needs to turnthe support for facilities to pension money for disabled people. In Japan,people receive a pension if they are disabled, whether they have worked ornot," said Park.

The directors of legal facilities have a different perspective on IL centers. "Itis impossible to achieve IL because the disabled need so many people to takecare of them. One disabled person needs caretaking by three to four people.Facilities can overcome the problem of isolation by increasing contact withlocal community," said Kim Jeong-yeon, head of the Shin-a RehabilitationInstitute for the mentally retarded.

Asked if facilities do not restrict the freedom of its residents, he answered, "Theyhave relative freedom. They are able to wear their hair the way they want,and also wear the clothes they want," he said. How about education? "Itis possible to raise their social etiquette but impossible to increase theirlearning capabilities."

Not all facilities are equal. Some create an environment in which residentsfeel happy and at home, such as the Eunpyeong Angel's Haven Disabled Children'sHome, a facility for orphans and disabled persons.

Established in 1959 as a facility for war orphans, it has since been operatedby the government as a home for children from ages 4 to 18. The governmentsupports the children with scholarships to go to college and to study for careers.The facility started taking in disabled children from 1980 and has establisheda special school in order to educate these children.

Free from dependency

"There are some residents who have tried IL, living in group homes outsideof our facility, and they come back here asking for a place to live," saidYoon Kyung-sook, director of Angel's Haven. This is the result of the generaldependency that society fosters in the disabled, the paradigm which the ILis trying to overcome. "IL has the potential to emancipate persons withdisabilities from the servitude of unjust, unwanted dependency, and to initiatea quantum leap forward in the quality and productivity of their lives," saidJustin Dart, a longtime advocate for the rights of people with disabilities,in 1988.

Government efforts to support the movement for disabled rights are occurringin small but incremental stages. The Ministry of Health and Welfare announcedan enforcement ordinance on the Disabled Person Welfare Law on May 11 to expandthe policy of giving a quota to governmental and public agencies to purchasegoods produced by disabled people.

It is expected to increase employment opportunities for the disabled, andraise their wages. "This is just a temporary remedy on the government'spart; it will not solve all the structural problems that we have," saidKim Gi-ryong, head of the Disabled Rights to Education Commission.

Also, starting next year, all private and government-run companies must reserveat least 2 percent of their total work force for the disabled. The currentquota is 1 percent.

These efforts come not long after the Joint Association Struggling for theHuman Rights of the Disabled pushed for a policy change, with demands across11 areas. Top of their agenda is a Disability Discrimination Act along thelines of the U.S. ADA and the Australian and British DDA.

After the association handed their policy demands to President Roh Moo-hyun,committee leaders have been meeting with representatives from the ministriesof Health and Welfare, Construction and Transportation, and Education and HumanResources Development.

Jang Hyang-suk, who is Korea's only female parliamentarian with a disabilityand uses a wheelchair, is working to pass three laws for disabled people'srights: a pension plan for poor disabled persons who have never worked, a revisionof the Disabled Employment Act and Disabled Welfare Act which includes specificproposals for more support for the Independent Living movement, a re-establishmentof the grading system for disability, and the increase of political participationof disabled persons in policymaking.

There are three other lawmakers with disabilities: Jung Hwa-won, who is blind,Lee Sang-min and Shim Jae-chul, who rely on canes when walking. This is thefirst time in history that the Korean National Congress has had so many disabledrepresentatives at one time.

With the active movement of disabled activists, lawmakers and the increasingawareness and support of ordinary people, a new world for disabled rights seemsclose at hand.

Relevant Web sites:

Korean Network for Independent Living: http://www.knil.org.The Seoul Center for Independent Living: http://www.scil.or.kr.Joint Association Struggling for the Human Rights of the Disabled: www. 420.or.kr.Disability DiscriminationActs of Solidarity in Korea (committee promoting the establishment of disabilityrights law): www.ddask.net, Research Instituteof the Differently Abled Persons Rights in Korea: http://www.cowalk.or.kr


By Kwon Ji-young