Korean disability activists demand the right to mobility

An illustration of a wheelchair user

About the illustrator: eomju is a commercial artist and occasional writer. She aims to produce vibrant illustrations that elevate human dignity. She published Nightmare Collector with Achimdal Publishing House. You can see more of her work here: https://www.instagram.com/eomju_/ (eomju)

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.”

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