'Disabled women are human too' - is South Korea ready for the Paralympics?

From BBC - March 10, 2018

South Korea was celebrated for the way it hosted the Winter Olympics, but in the first edition of its volunteer handbook, published in January, it felt it necessary to remind volunteers, known as the Passion Crew, that "a female disabled is also a female human being". So is it ready to host the Paralympics?

South Korea is famed for its technology and fast-pace, its difficult relationship with North Korea and of course K-Pop which burst on to the Western music scene with Gangnam Style. But it has not always been as forward-thinking when it comes to women, especially if they are disabled.

"Women could never be heroes," travel writer, Seoul-dweller and disability campaigner Seyoon Jane Hong, 30, says.

"Until the 20th Century, everything was male-centred.

"Even now if you are young, you may experience unfairness. When you are a woman, oppression is added. And if there is a disability, it is triple discrimination."

It's something she and her friends face, but the country is in flux - divided by age, gender and ability - perhaps not too dissimilar to the UK.

"Baby Boomers and the older generation give more value to economic development than human rights, peace and equality," she says. "To them, disabled people are patients who need help.

"Younger generations, on the other hand, are much more flexible. They acknowledge that various people live together in society and regard people as important rather than economic."

Hong has been in a wheelchair for 20 years after she contracted a spinal cord virus - aged 10.

She spent years confined to Seoul, South Korea's capital, until she decided to travel alone when the first accessible express train, KTX was completed.

She felt liberation and wanderlust - emotions that had never been experienced by disabled people older than her.

Hong recalls elderly women telling her how their lives were stunted by the perception of their disability. They were dehumanised - forced to marry older men, or unsuitable disabled men, because remaining single was unacceptable.

"They have not been recognised for their femininity because they may have difficulty in bearing and nurturing children," she says. "They experienced repression and frustration from the people around them. There was no opportunity."

She says expectations have changed and, in 2018, there is less emphasis on marriage and beauty, and those with disabilities are "free to love and get married or spontaneously stay single".

As a United Nations member, South Korea follows the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention includes the equal rights of women and children who are disabled.

Since the 1990s, disabled children have attended mainstream school. Hong is young enough to have benefitted from this inclusive step forward, although she says her own experience was challenging.

"If the teacher had a strong understanding of the disability, it was easy to participate in the class. But if not, it was difficult."

Preconceptions have started to change, with talks and outreach programmes in place. There are many disabled students at university although youth unemployment is high and, for those with disabilities, it's even worse.

The OECD, the club of industrialised nations, says 5% of South Korea's 50 million population are registered disabled and, of those, 64.5% are unemployed according to Human Rights Korea.

The government has tried to combat these high figures by taxing companies 637 annually if they do not employ 1.5 disabled people for every 50 people they hire. But according to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, more than half of all companies opt to pay the fine instead.

Britain does not have a quota system but other European countries like Germany and Austria do - and are said to have a similar pushback from employers.

Those in South Korea who are unable to find work can apply for benefits through a controversial grading system based entirely on medical assessments rather than factors such as whether someone lives rurally or in the city.


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