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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Access for All: The Story of Years of Protests by Persons with Disabilities in Korea

Article by: Seunghyun Yang, Hyewon Jeong, Seungwon Nam 

This article is part of a collaboration with Seoul-based Hanyang University; specifically Hanyang’s School of Internatiomal Studies. We publish a series of articles as part of this collaboration.

2.6 Million Persons with Disabilities in South Korea

All the way back in January 2021, a large group of wheelchair users boarded the metro in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. The unprecedented protest during rush hour drew complaints from commuters and even let to the deployment of riot police to remove the protesters. The protests were organised by Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD), which we will return to later. And the group’s resolve has remained unwavering until today. Their key message is that persons with disabilities have the right to access public transportation easily and safely. The ongoing protest has ignited a movement for mobility rights, paving the way for a better quality of life for persons with disabilities in Seoul. Among the total South Korean population, 5.2 percent of individuals are registered as disabled, meaning that 2.6 million persons with disabilities live in South Korea. The following is a story of years of protests and the respond they are met with from the general public and government authorities. It is a major story that very few outside South Korea will have heard of.

Challenges in Public Transport

The most widely used transportation method for persons with disabilities is the low floor bus, which is specifically crafted with a lowered body to facilitate boarding, as well as  the wheelchair taxi, a van designed to accommodate wheelchairs in its boot. In 2022, low-floor buses constituted 34 percent of all buses in South Korea, totalling 11,838 vehicles. However, low floor bus usage is limited due to drivers’ “denying boarding” to persons with disabilities, as well as challenges due to curb height, and accessibility at bus stops. 3,914 wheelchair taxis are also in operation. But they likewise face constraints, namely unpredictable waiting times and restricted interregional travel. Only 10 Express Buses servicing suburban areas can be used by persons with disabilities. As a matter of comparison, low floor bus adoption rate in nearby Japan clocks in at over 80 percent and the wheelchair taxi adoption rate is over 30 percent, largely due to the implementation of barrier-free legislation in 2000.

Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination

One organisation in South Korea stands out particularly concerning the rights of persons with disabilities. The Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD) is an organisation of persons with disabilities who organise social gatherings and projects to enhance their lives, with specific regard to accessibility of public places, education, and income.  Their ultimate goal is to end both discrimination and exclusion of persons with disabilities. In December 2021, members of SADD initiated a protest through direct action, occupying the metro and bus system of Seoul. Their efforts were underscored by a statement calling for action on the full implementation of the Seoul Declaration on the Right to Mobility for Persons with Disabilities, which included, for example, “22 billion KRW [16 million USD] budgeted in 2021 to get 100 percent of city low floor buses up and running by 2025.”

Conflict Between SADD and the Seoul Metropolitan Government

Starting in January of 2021, disabled members of SADD staged a series of protests to highlight the mobility challenges faced by the community. They maneuvered their electric wheelchairs in and out of metro stations, as well as temporarily delayed train operations by wedging their wheelchairs in the train doors. Seoul Metro filed a civil suit against four SADD officials to demand almost 30 million KRW [22,800 USD] in damages. The Seoul Central District Court suggested a compulsory mediation plan for both sides, but Seoul Metro filed an appeal indicating that there would be no compromise. Furthermore, the Seoul Metropolitan Government cut the budget for the deinstitutionalisation of persons with disabilities by 1.9 billion KRW [1.4 million USD] and reduced funding allocated to employment opportunities for the disabled community in the public sector.

Public Inconvenience or Public Solidarity?

In February 2022, petitions were submitted to the South Korean government with the request to stop SADD’s metro protests, signed by more than 2,000 people. This may be explained by the fact that SADD’s protests have caused regular metro delays, thereby severely disrupting commutes of those in Seoul and from surrounding areas traveling to and from work. According to a public opinion poll of 950 citizens, 56 percent said they “don’t understand the reason for SADD’s protests”, and 40 percent responded that “the protest has negatively changed their perception of people with disabilities”. Public opinion on the internet is even more divisive. Videos of police brutality against SADD are dominated by comments agreeing with the violence and arrest of people with disabilities.

Police Response

Following SADD’s call to resume metro station protests, Oh Se-hoon, the current mayor of Seoul, posted a response on his Facebook page on December 26th, 2022, saying that “there is no more tolerance for illegal activities”, and that he would “enforce a zero tolerance policy.” The level of force used by police during SADD’s protests has subsequently intensified. SADD continued their demonstrations lawfully, meeting the court’s demands. Yet, transportation authorities and eight riot police forcibly removed their wheelchairs from a metro station. The protests were adjusted from the earlier mentioned metro boarding to die-ins at the stations – a form of demonstration where participants lie motionless as if deceased – police barred their entry to stations or forced them to vacate the premises. The police’s approach was seemingly coercive when they prevented any journalists from filming the protests.

Most Recent Developments

On April 20th 2024, SADD organised an overnight rally for “People with Disability Day” and held a die-in on a metro platform in the Hansung University station. They lay motionless with banners declaring “Disabled people also want to live as citizens.” They sat, sang, and engaged in the protest for about one hour. In response, Seoul Metro installed safety fences and stationed additional personnel at major stations. Police detained four SADD activists with severe disabilities for violating the law of special property damage and assault.

Part of a Global Development

Organisations like SADD in Korea seek a positive future for disability rights in their country. But it is a pertinent issue for all countries around the world. This is not least reflected in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), to which South Korea is a signatory. The impetus for the CRPD originally from the Unites States, where The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from 1990 has been highly successful in ensuring that much of the public space in the country caters for persons with disabilities. For those interested to learn more about this case study as a comparison with Korea, you can find one of our articles here.

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