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Beyond welfare law, South Korea's disabled need more support

Despite strong legislation, many disabled people remain isolated and excluded from mainstream society

Beyond welfare law, South Korea's disabled need more support

Disabled people in South Korea face discrimination despite a strong welfare law. (Photo: YouTube)

Last December, Jang Joon-ho, a 21-year-old man with development disabilities, went missing while walking with his mother in Dulle-jil National Park in South Korea’s Gyeonggi-do province.

Days of searching by police were fruitless and the operation ended with the discovery of clothes and shoes Jang was wearing on Jan. 11.

Three months later, on March 27, a fisherman found his body floating in the Han River and reported it to police.

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Police suspected it was a case of accidental death from drowning. However, there was speculation that Jang might have committed suicide as he disappeared from his mother after a sudden run.

Jang’s family were consumed by grief to see him die most unexpectedly. His death also shocked the National Solidarity of Parents with Disabilities group, which organized a memorial ceremony for him.

“If we had a friendly environment for persons with disabilities in the community, he would not have died,” one mourner lamented.

Activists say there is a dire need for improvement in how South Korean society views and treats the disabled

Jang’s unnatural death triggered soul-searching about the plight of the disabled in South Korea despite a strong welfare law to support them.

According to the National Disability Survey of 2016, South Korea had more than 2.6 million persons with disabilities and about 50 percent suffered from physical disabilities.

The Welfare Act for the Persons with Disabilities fully recognizes the rights of the disabled including human dignity and just treatment. It bans all forms of discrimination against disabled people and stipulates the responsibilities of the state and society to guarantee them adequate opportunities in political, economic, social and cultural activities.

However, a 2017 study found various forms of discrimination against disabled people are prevalent, forcing many of them to remain isolated and excluded from mainstream society.

The study cited an example of a man who used a wheelchair and was forced to leave a job as his company didn’t provide accessible facilities and his colleagues often mocked him over his disabilities. He lodged a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission and his employer was told to take corrective action, but nothing changed. 

Activists say there is a dire need for improvement in how South Korean society views and treats the disabled to ensure their well-being and right to live without discrimination.

“Although systems related to the disabled have been created through a long struggle, people with disabilities are still being discriminated and not allowed to live as equal citizens," said Park Kim Young-hee, chief executive of Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SAAD), an advocacy group, reported the Catholic Times of Korea.

“Rather, it is necessary to have a policy and a maturity of citizens to allow persons with disabilities to live as equal citizens.”

Catholic officials say the Church’s social doctrine fully recognizes the rights of the disabled and emphasizes their protection in family and social life. The Korean Church offers social services to allow the disabled to have a dignified life.

Marking the National Day for Disabled Persons in South Korea on April 20, Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Yu Gyeong-chon of Seoul urged the faithful to be more compassionate to persons with disabilities.

“It is essential to have active interests and solidarity with persons with disabilities so that they can live together with us as ordinary neighbors without being isolated within the parish and community,” said Bishop Yu, vice-president of the Social Affairs Bureau of Seoul Archdiocese

The prelate also emphasized that disabled persons such as the blind and hearing-impaired should be treated with dignity and provided with proper education and professional training as well as customized jobs to help their integration into the society.

Bishop Yu said the Church supports the disabled through its extended social networks at parish, diocese and national levels that provide for necessary facilities for disabled persons to become self-reliant.

People with disabilities must be loved in the same way as non-disabled persons. They need respect and they also need affection, concern and intimacy

In recent times, South Korea’s government has made attempts to address the concerns of rights groups about the situation of disabled persons, who were once again exposed to misery by the coronavirus pandemic. 

On March 23, the government declared it would adopt the 5th Comprehensive Plan for Disabled Persons Policy 2021 and establish the Roadmap for Supporting Independence of Disabled Communities for Disabled Facilities.

On March 29, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced that it will establish a strong foundation for promoting rights and opportunities for disabled persons by enacting the Seoul City Ordinance on Support for Facilities for Disabled People this year.

The moves have been widely acclaimed. Rights campaigners have urged the government to ensure that the voices and needs of disabled persons are reflected in the policies and actions.

Um Sam-yong, director of the Social Welfare Association in Chuncheon Diocese, said the Church has made significant efforts for the rehabilitation of disabled persons that have yielded great results.

“It is never easy for people with disabilities to live together in the community. When they are provided the facilities, they become independent and live happily,” he said.

“People with disabilities must be loved in the same way as non-disabled persons. They need respect and they also need affection, concern and intimacy.”

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