SEOUL— April 15 marked the 91st day of a dramatic clash at Hyehwa Station in the middle of the South Korean capital. Disability rights activists, many of them in wheelchairs, are holding protests on the subway to demand accommodations on public transport. And on this day the protesters chained themselves to each other and to a stepladder, re-enacting a 2001 protest where activists chained themselves to subway tracks. Now they were shouting, “Pass a budget to citizens with disabilities! No rights no budget!” They boarded trains in groups, which requires transit workers to install and uninstall wheelchair ramps, causing delays. Some of the activists had recently shaved their heads in public, a monastic sacrificial ritual.
Lee Hyoung-sook, who leads a local advocacy group, was among those who had their heads shaved. At Gyeongbokgung Station, she tried to board the train on her way to Hyehwa Station. Metro workers brought in a ramp so that its wheels wouldn’t get caught in the large space between the platform and the car. Four more wheelchair users waited their turn to board other sections of the train. As workers moved their only ramp to get all wheelchair activists on board, the subway doors continued to close on them. “Dear citizens, we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience,” Lee told his fellow travelers.
“We are expecting a response from President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s transition committee by April 20 on how they plan to guarantee our basic human rights,” she explained. (April 20th is Korea National Day to Abolish Discrimination of Persons with Disabilities.) “We hope to hear that the new government will do the bare minimum to safeguard our rights. But if we don’t, citizens with disabilities will get back on trains at rush hour.”
The subway protests, led by Korea’s largest disability rights group, Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD), began in early December, on World Disability Day. Its initial aim was to pressure Seoul’s national and municipal governments to demand accessible public transport in subways, buses and taxis. Taking advantage of the fierce campaign in a close presidential race – the election would take place in early March – SADD secured meetings with the two main candidates, including Yoon, the future Conservative president.
On New Year’s Eve, lawmakers passed a bill on the right of transit. But that was not what SADD had proposed. Although the law required urban and rural buses to be made wheelchair accessible, free intercity buses. It also allowed local governments to choose not to in take additional measures, such as providing taxis for citizens with disabilitiesfor budgetary reasons. This was unacceptable to SADD and its allies.
The South Korean constitution guarantees that “all citizens will be equal before the law”, but discrimination against people with disabilities – as well as racial minorities, foreigners and queer people – is effectively legal. As calls for expanded anti-discrimination laws have grown over the past decade, so has the backlash from young men complaining of “reverse discrimination.” Yoon and his People’s Power Party (PPP) have made this pain central to their politics. In March 26thLee Jun-seok, Yoon’s right-hand man and head of the PPP, condemned the SADD rush hour protests on his Facebook page.. “SADD must immediately stop its illegal protests, which indiscriminately hold Seoul passengers hostage during rush hour,” he wrote. “The oppressed framing that minorities are always right no longer convinces people. They are relying on a long-obsolete policy of gaslighting, stereotyping the majority as evil and the minority as the untouchably sacred.”
Lee’s remarks brought the disability rights movement to the center of a larger struggle by minority groups in South Korea.
In January 2001, a couple in their 70s, both in wheelchairs, arrived at Oido station in a southwestern suburb of Seoul. They planned to visit their son on Lunar New Year and as there was no elevator, they had to use a vertical wheelchair lift. The device had been installed just six months earlier with the inauguration of the station. However, when the elevator took them to the second floor, it suddenly broke apart. The metal links the elevator was hanging from came loose, sending the couple 23 feet to the ground. The mother died in the hospital nine hours later. The husband was seriously injured but survived.
The accident was shocking, but the parties responsible – the operators of the Korean National Railway and the Oido station – immediately tried to minimize and cover up the damage. In the hours after the incident, they offered the family just 180 million Korean won (approximately $150,000) to settle the case. SADD was formed in response to the demand for a public apology and safe and accessible public transport. Two weeks after the accident, activists occupied the train tracks in Seoul Stion, an important transit hub. Wheelchair users were lowered onto the rails, where they lay on their backs and chained themselves to the metal bars. Park Kyeong-seok, co-director of SADD and co-founder of NoDeul School for the Disabled, shouted, “We will not tolerate another death. Guarantee our right to mobility!”
Park and his allies began to occupy subway cars and buses in the following months. Seoul’s then-mayor and future president, Lee Myung-bak, had no choice but to act. He promised to install an elevator at all subway stations by 2004. Today, more than 90% of stations have elevators – compared to just 30% of those in New York – but Park, his now graying hair, continues to fight for bus accommodations. and taxis too. “The right to mobility is an especially crucial right. It is intrinsically linked to the right to education, health and work,” Park said. According to a 2020 survey by the Korean Institute of Health and Social Affairs, 32% of Koreans with disabilities were unable to reach a hospital or clinic when they needed to — and 30% of that group cited transportation as the reason.
Park has been active in the latest round of subway protests and now finds himself defending the disabled community against hateful rhetoric. Rush hour actions have led many people without disabilities to criticize SADD. I met Byun Hyun-jun, 21, co-founder of Collective Action to Ensure Barrier-Free Accessibility at Seoul National University and a sociology student, at a protest at Hyehwa Station. “I understand and sympathize with troubled citizens who experience a crucial 10-15 minute delay on their morning commute,” he told me. “But I wish that we as a society could use a little imagination to see that citizens with disabilities have been living with such hardship throughout their lives.”
But PPP leader Lee went far beyond complaining about traffic delays. People with disabilities, he said, were “playing the minority card” and using an “uncivilized and retrograde strategy to hold innocent citizens hostage.”
Comments on the FM Korea online community Derogatory disability increased tenfold in the week after Lee comments. And comments specifically targeted at SADD have increased threefold. Angry Koreans flooded SADD’s phone lines with complaints and offensive messages. Such hate speech against minority groups is part of a clear pattern resulting from a strategy by Lee, President-elect Yoon and the PPP to demonize various minority groups to consolidate the support of right-wing voters.
“Lee called our protests ‘uncivilized’. But our fight is justified,” Park said. “It is our current society, which excludes and makes citizens with disabilities invisible, that is uncivilized.”
TThe personal stakes of accessible transit are deep and well documented. For Kim Heon-yong, a blind English teacher at Shinmyeon Middle School in Seoul, the realization came on a commute to work in 2013. He missed his stop and got off at a random station to get back. “I didn’t know the station layout, and that station had not yet installed security doors along the platform,” Kim recalled. He accidentally left the platform and fell onto the tracks.
“When I realized what had happened, the first thought I had was, ‘It finally happened to me too,’” he said. “I sincerely hoped this would happen at some point in my life. I knew how common this type of accident is for blind citizens who use the subway.” In fact, four of the 15 people in Kim’s cohort from a school for the blind had fallen on the tracks. “I was barely saved by women who pulled me by the arms before the train arrived, but a friend hit by the train at Yongsan station in 2013 and now lives with paraplegia.”
Korean subway stations have become much safer, but in 2018, a wheelchair user was dead in an elevator accident in Seoul Balsan Station. “Seoul may have a high percentage of subway accessibility today, but that hasn’t stopped preventable deaths and injuries at stations that haven’t yet installed elevators,” explained Park, the longtime activist. Outside of Seoul and some other major cities, people are more likely to rely on buses and taxis for public transport, which poses serious obstacles for users with disabilities.
Three weeks ago, SADD organizers agreed to temporarily stop the rush-hour demonstrations at the request of the presidential transition committee, which had promised to respond to activists’ call for a disability-specific plan by April 20. A day earlier than promised, the transition committee released a statement promising to improve accessibility across the country. But his statement lacked any mention of the budget allocations, which would be needed to pass any changes. As a result, starting April 21, SADD plans to resume rush-hour demonstrations – this time on three subway lines, which is likely to disrupt travel around Seoul.
“All we are asking from the new government are improvements to the metro, bus and taxi systems so that we can browse our cities just like sane citizens,” said Lee Hyoung-sook, an activist at the NoDeul Independence Center. “Our society’s immediate response to any disability rights issue has been segregate and quarantine citizens with disabilities. But here we are. We exist even when we can be pushed out of sight.”