Disabled student Hyeon-bok reflects on his own life as a disabled person in South Korea and on the low visibility of disabled people in the wider community.
I have cerebral palsy. So I have some difficulty walking, but I don’t let that handicap me when I am with my friends. But many people think I’m very lucky. Maybe they think I’m superman sometimes. They overemphasise my success, the fact that I have a job the same as they do. They think I work harder than people with no disability.
This may be because disabled people aren’t that visible in Korea. We’re regarded as pitiful and weak. So, they say, “Can I help you?” When I was younger I got irritable when I heard that. But now I’m more accepting of their help – lifting a bag, giving a seat, etc. But I like my independent life and I think I can do pretty much anything.
In Korea I’ve stood out because for example, I’ve been the only visible disabled person since I was an elementary school student. I didn’t see a single other disabled boy or girl in school days. But these days there are some disabled people attending university. And they’ve formed a group and have a meeting once a month.
In fact I’ve found many advantages because I’m disabled. When I wanted to enter my university I chose an affirmative action initiative for disabled students. It’s been running since 2002 and was designed to give disabled students a high-class education. Now about 2,000 students enter university each year and those people are more likely to find work.
Other disabled Koreans aren’t so lucky. When I was a reporter on my university’s newspaper I saw people living in segregated accommodation. But they wanted to live independently with their own house, their job, their own leisure time. They said to me, “I save my salary to buy my house.” But now many disabled people find getting their independent life difficult. I think their families are concerned that independent living would be very hard for them. But they still want it.
My friend who has learning difficulties said to me: “In separate accommodation, I often feel tamed because it isn’t exciting. I know I may feel uncomfortable when I live alone or with friends. But it will be good experience for me.” Some disabled people demonstrate against having to live in this segregated way. So, as you can see, the right to an independent life is a hot issue in Korea.
Most disabled people in Korea attend special school. But Korean special education doesn’t give them opportunities for social activities. So some of them prefer to enter normal school. But people with learning difficulties especially find it hard to get a normal education. Many of them go to vocational school. There are about 200 of these.
They find it difficult to get a job because many employers think that we are less productive than non-disabled people. Korea has affirmative action named “Disability Employment Promotion Act”. This action says that all firms which have more than 300 workers must have two per cent disabled people in their workforce. If they don’t keep to this quota they have to pay a penalty. But many firms choose to pay the penalty rather than observe the quota.
In 2008 fewer than 1.5 per cent of Korean disabled people were in employment. Furthermore, most disabled people have basic labouring jobs. But those of us who are university graduates aspire to jobs better fitted to our skills.
To sum up, many disabled people in Korea live in poor conditions. Of course government supports them financially with benefits and tax relief, and creating affirmative action for getting people into employment in the civil service. But this doesn’t solve the problems most people face in their lives.
If they have family, their poverty becomes worse because they can’t make money to feed their family. I think the only real solution is getting jobs for them. This is the key to a better life.